The topics that were tackled on the first two days of the 26th ICOM General Congress were serious and tough. The third day, however, was even more serious. SPOILER ALERT: we came to the conclusion that so many of us had been waiting for for so long - the new museum definition was adopted.
But before we get to the heart of it, let's start chronologically. The morning session was devoted to Museums and new technologies (Delivery: Museums and new technologies), with a keynote address by Sebastian Robert Chan, Director of the ACMI Museum in Australia. He started his presentation with a picture of a cat, which I think everyone here already liked very much (cats are becoming more and more common in museums, see Ethnocats at the Ethnographic Museum). In his presentation he first gave a brief overview of the relationship between museums and digital technology, and then addressed current problems and issues. His main message was the often-heard phrase that museums are not neutral, just as technology is not neutral. Museum professionals need to know exactly what their digital and technological needs are in order to be able to apply them appropriately in their exhibitions.
The roundtable was opened by Nanet Beumer, Head of Digital and Marketing at the Rijksmuseum. She used the example of the museum to show how a long-established institution can successfully use new technologies to grow and succeed. Of the Rijksmuseum's collection of millions of items, 700,000 pieces are already digitised and publicly accessible online for all. Through the Rijksstudio sub-site, visitors can browse and produce digital content and exhibitions of these objects at their leisure. One of their latest and very exciting projects is the recent video game Horizon Forbidden West, in collaboration with Guerrilla Games, in which the museum's artefacts play a major role, alongside the protagonist's mission to save the Earth. Their digital content is always based on the collection, as it is an inexhaustible source of knowledge.
The second speaker is Sarah Kenderdine, Professor, who researches the use of digital technology and other technologies in cultural spaces and institutions. It is difficult to put into words her various projects. There was a discussion about digital twins, or exact digital copies of original artefacts, but also about a data set bura that broadcasts jazz music. Sarah Kenderdine's technical solution offers visitors a new kind of access. They are able to examine objects and archives and the connections between them from a different angle, from a closer, deeper perspective.
Next in line was Lāth Carlson, who has worked on the digital and technological transformation and renewal of many museums. His most recent project is the Museum of the Future in Dubai, which is a stunning project: I think many of us were amazed, not only at the scale and the astonishing potential of the museum, but also at the way it was built. The museum presents a possible future, 2071, and the technical and technological solutions that it offers. Of course, it is a positive vision of the future, with clean energy sources and new possibilities. In his presentation, he stresses that we often confuse digital technology with technology. The Museum of the Future has little presence in the digital space, but its offline venue presents technologies that are highly innovative.
The roundtable discussion which included a series of short presentations was concluded by Sarah Bin. Sarah Brin brings together the world of museums and video games. She has worked with several museums and cultural institutions on various joint projects focused on strengthening their digital (video games) presence. She is currently working at Sony Playstation. For her, it is important to stress that culture is more than just a set of physical objects. Video games can also make some of our cultural elements accessible, and the use of such popular media in museums is a good option.
An interesting discussion ensued between the round table participants, following questions from the audience. The majority agreed that online and offline visitors are equally important,but that the digital experience cannot be compared to the physical, real presence. Therefore, the two can only work in complementary ways.
I started in the middle of the process, but we've only just got here. The next session was on the new definition of the museum and the process of creating it, which was a very long one, spanning 18 months. The round table was presided by two chairs of the ICOM Define Committee, the committee set up to develop the definition, Bruno Brulon Soares and Lauran Bonilla-Merchav. The round table participants, all members of the committee, reported on the work of the definition.
Inkyung Cheng began by saying that it was a long but democratic and transparent process, not inventing a new one, but improving it. He also underlined what so many have already said, change is constant and we need to act now, so the definition can never be perfect as it only reflects a particular moment in time.
Nicolas Kramar highlighted diversity in his short summary. Committee members and ongoing consultations represented not only geographical diversity, but also linguistic and cultural diversity. It was very important that during the creative process, everyone had the opportunity to contribute and that a wide range of opinions were represented.
Chedlia Annabi from Tunisia entered online. For her, the most important thing is that this definition does not discriminate between museums in the world, it is universally valid for all museums around the world. This plurality is also what makes museums places of dialogue.
The speeches were concluded by Muthoni Thangwa from Kenya. Referring to Chedlia, she stressed the importance of involving the younger generation, thus increasing diversity. She said the definition is not perfect, it will never be perfect and we have to accept that. The important thing is to find a formulation that does not limit progress and good practices and processes that have already been started, such as restitution. Despite the fact that they would have liked to have included the words decolonisation and restitution, they have not been included, but other words have been incorporated and so the process that has already begun can continue. The challenge for museums in Africa is to rethink their operations and to find the communities to which these objects will be returned through restitution. She concluded by saying that we are the lucky generation that has to initiate the change, this is a time of transformation, a moment to rethink museums.
Speakers all agreed that the work does not end here, the issue of translations will also be a very difficult and challenging task to find the right words and concepts. The discussion was followed by an opportunity for comments and questions. Most of these were congratulations, as during the 18 months ICOM members and almost anyone could ask questions and make comments at any time. And the multi-stakeholder consultation provided an organised framework for the free expression of views. Thus the definition presented here left few questions.
After a short break for lunch, the ICOM extraordinary General Assembly began with the adoption of the new definition. After the usual formalities of the General Assembly, the two ICOM Define Presidents briefly outlined the events of the past 18 months, and then Alberto Garlandi, (former) President of ICOM, presented the new version of the proposed definition. There was also an opportunity for discussion and comments. At the end of the assembly the result was announced, the ICOM members adopted the new museum definition proposal by a large majority of 487 votes in favour.
The audience received this news with standing ovations, emotional and happy, the members of ICOM Define embracing each other and celebrating with tears of joy, a truly remarkable and touching moment. You can read the new definition adopted by the ICOM President for Hungary, Zsolt Sárihere.
This was followed by the 37th Annual General Assembly of ICOM. The agenda included: a report on the 2021 budget, the ICOM President's Annual Report 2021, the presentation of the proposed resolutions, the Strategic Plan for 2022-2028, the Code of Conduct for the Board of Directors, and the election of the new Board of Directors. In a somewhat dry but interesting long session, the documents for adoption were presented and all were adopted by a large majority. And the new ICOM Board members were elected for the next three-year term:
President: Emma Nardi (Italy)
Vice-Chairs: Inkyung CHANG (Republic of Korea), Terry Simioti NYAMBE (Republic of Zambia)
Treasurer: Carina JAATINEN, Republic of Finland
Full members: Feng ZHAO, People's Republic of China, Marilia BONAS, Federal Republic of Brazil, Kaja SIROK, Republic of Slovenia, Tayeebeh Golnaz GOLSABAHI, Islamic Republic of Iran, Steph SCHOLTEN, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Deborah TOUT-SMITH, Commonwealth of Australia, Luís RAPOSO, Portuguese Republic, Jody STEIGER, Republic of Costa Rica, Karin WEIL GONZÁLEZ, Republic of Chile, Ahmed MOHAMMED, United Arab Emirates, Rachelle DOUCET, Republic of Haiti.
This concludes the public part of the technical event, which will be opened tomorrow for members to attend separate committee meetings. The day will end with the traditional flag handover reception at the imposing National Museum in the centre of Prague.
The next Congress will be in Dubai in 2025!
Translation by Julianna Kárpáti