The triennial ICOM (International Council of Museums) general congress has begun in Prague. The informal cultural activities of the 26th edition of the conference got underway over the weekend, with visitors touring Prague and visiting the city's museums. And on Sunday 21 August, there were already some private meetings for ICOM members.
On Monday morning 22 August, the public general congress opened. The opening ceremony included speeches by ICOM President Alberto Garlandini, Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic, Martin Baxa, Chairwoman of the ICOM Czech Republic Commission, Gina Renotière, Mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, UNESCO Deputy Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone, Director of the Czech National Museum Michal Lukeš, and the main organiser of the conference (and I congratulate her and her staff), Martina Lehmannová.In their speeches, they all spoke about the difficulties of the past years, the excellence of museums and professionals, their dedication and the great work they have done in these times. The speeches were followed by a dance and music performance by the folk dance group Kohoutek from the town of Chrudim, presenting Czech music and dance traditions.
The opening ceremony was immediately followed by the morning session, the theme of which was the museum and the society. (The panel was titled as Purpose: Museum and Civil Society.) The keynote speech was held by Margarita Reyes Suárez from the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH). In her presentation, she explained how the Colombian Museum in Bogotá has become a polyvalent museum open to all. Violence and (gang) fights have been a significant part of Colombia's history. Oppressed rural communities live in fear. Margarita Reyes Suárez saw this with her own eyes during one of her rural field trips. It was really interesting to her that, despite all the bad things, people still cling to their cultural heritage and identity. As a result of internal migration, the majority of these minority groups, indigenous and oppressed, settle in Bogotá and find refuge, although they find it difficult to integrate into urban society.The National Museum in Bogota wants to change this, welcoming them with open doors, listening to their stories, admiring their courage and their attachment to their roots despite the difficulties. After a while, they did not just listen, but started to work with them on joint projects, including exhibitions focusing on the amazing treasures of the refugees' homeland. One such exhibition tells the story of the Magdalena River and the people who live around it.This is a travelling exhibition that has been seen in many parts of the country and even taken to villages along the river, allowing the community to revisit their history and heritage in a different form. Margarita went on to cite many more examples, but they all illustrate the museum's ability to act as an engine for social change. Margarita concluded that memory and history are inseparable, and to know and be aware of our history, our real past, we need to give space to all social groups, so that it becomes a "museum for all", a museum of understanding and society.
The speech was followed by a round table discussion on the theme of museums and civil societies, with four participants all of them representatives of museums dealing with trauma or crisis situations. Each participant was given 8 minutes to introduce themselves and to present their ideas for discussion. The first speaker was Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who registered online from New York (very early in the morning local time). Barbara, Senior Curator of the central exhibition at the POLIN Polish Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw and Professor Emerita of Performance Studies at New York University, asked in her short speech what the role of the museum is in a crisis situation or traumatic event: to remain neutral or to become a participant. He said that the best way is somewhere in the middle.
The second speaker was Kateryna Chuyeva from Ukraine, Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Affairs of Ukraine and one of the founders of the Majdan Museum. Kateryna spoke about the current situation and the important role of museums as well as the difficult processes between society, the state and museums in the field of heritage protection. She also spoke about the importance of social and professional cooperation and the collecting and documentary work related to the current crisis in Ukraine. This will enable society and museums to rediscover Ukrainian identity together and build the future together.
The third speaker at the roundtable was Jasminko Halilovic, founder and director of the War Childhood Museum. He spoke about the power of objects and their role in our society. For him, it is very important that he has experienced the AHA, that is, eureka moment several times, when the last puzzle is put in place, the circle is closed and everything is complete, understanding and peace are born. He supported this with several personal examples, stories in which his visitors found themselves, discovered their own past or could relate to that of others.
Nisay Hang is the final speaker at the roundtable, and is the director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia. In his short presentation, he outlined the museum's painful history. The institution used to house a prison where people believed to be "political enemies" of the Khmer Rouge regime were detained, interrogated, tortured and then exterminated. At the time of liberation, only 12 survivors, including 4 children, were among the thousands of detainees. The museum has to grapple with the history of its own building and a collective social past. Instead of forgetting, it encourages remembrance and solidarity. Nisay says that one of their main tasks is to bring justice, to convict the perpetrators and to liberate (not only physically) those who suffered. And this can only be achieved by remembering.
At this point, I was craving for a coffee and luckily (there was no time for questions) the coffee break started soon, which reminded me of the first school break after the long summer break. Friends, long-lost colleagues, new acquaintances met, hugged each other in the joy of meeting again in person after a long (covid, etc...) time. At that moment the conference became one big happy crowd. Everybody was smiling and interested in each other, going from one hug and greeting to another.
After the coffee break, there were a series of smaller lectures, one of which was the Stephen E. Weil Memorial Lecture - LGBTIQ+Museums, on museum representation and inclusion of the LGBTIQ+ community. There was so much interest that audience members were even standing in the hallway, so I joined the roundtable discussion on the ICOM Code of Ethics (now under review) instead. Speakers mentioned aspects that were not yet included in the existing code but would be important to include in the new one. Audience members were then able to suggest topics that they felt were missing from the current Code of Ethics and should definitely be included in the new one.
After lunch, you could attend the presentations and workshops organised by each national and thematic committee. These ran simultaneously on a wide variety of topics. Although I would ideally have attended all of them, I had to chose, so I sat in first for the workshop on sustainability by Henry McGhie, which led to an interesting discussion about the fact that our museums had always been sustainable, but now we talk about it as sustainable development.
The last lecture I followed was organised by ICOFOM and we heard two very interesting papers on the taboos of museology entitled Introducing the Taboos of Museum Theory. Muthoni Thangwa from Kenya held a lecture entitled Unspoken histories - legacies of trauma, which was partly based on the history of her own family. She drew attention to the importance of untold events and stories. The second speaker, Ciraj Rassool explored the 'fashionable' issue of restitution in a comprehensive and sometimes critical way from the perspective of an African institution in a lecture titled Restitution and the museum as process.
First day and so much, experiences, encounters, and interesting lectures, knowledge, discussions, it is difficult to describe it all, and you have to hurry because the opening gala is about to start. One thing is for sure, the lively crowd, thousands of enthusiastic museum staff from all over the world, were eager to meet again and this excitement was felt everywhere.
Translation by Julianna Kárpáti