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The New Museum Definitions and Social Justice

What is a museum?

What is a museum? Before starting a museum discussion, let’s give a brief explanation about their role. The museum phenomena have been centered on debates in many layers, their architecture, their typology, and their role in society. The historical role of the museum is a giant field in today’s academic world nevertheless there is a consensus about certain aspects of museums’ function. One of those aspects is that they are cultural institutions. Although there are controversial points on their primary role is about showing colonial experience and national power, the ‘modern’ museums are, whether self-claimed or officially declared, educational and cultural institutions. However, the economical role of the museum notably changed in time especially after the emergence of mega museums.

Museum (N.)

1610s, “the university building in Alexandria,” from Latin museum “library, study,” from Greek mouseion “place of study, library or museum, school of art or poetry,” originally “a temple or shrine of the Muses,” from Mousa “Muse”. The earliest use in reference to English institutions was of libraries for scholarly study (1640s); the sense of “building or part of a building set aside as a repository and display place for objects relating to art, literature, or science” is recorded by 1680s. (definition credits)

Political Activism and Museums

In the 1960s and 1970s political activism, environmentalism, postmodernism witnessed the re-evaluation of the purpose of museums, leading to the ‘second museum revolution’ and a ‘new museology. ICOM-1985 established its International Committee for New Museology (MINOM). ICOM has also a specific committee just for the definition of a museum. Although the ‘old museology’ was not dismissed in this fresh vocabulary.  At the end of the 19th century, the First Museum Revolution’ has seen the emergence of endorsed curatorial, conservation, documentation, and education activities that are still being practiced.

At its 139th meeting in Paris 2019, the ICOM Executive Board selected the following as a new alternate museum  description for a vote to be included in the ICOM Statutes instead of the existing definition of a museum:

“Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

In ancient Greek, the museums were functioning places for muse as the name signifies and a place for study and learning. After the renaissance and great discoveries, the curiosity cabinets emerged based on private collections. In the course of time artifacts and treasures become more and more important. The museum gained its public agency through the public character of world fairs and officially after french revolution although, in theory, the first public museum is the British Museum founded by Hans Sloane in 1759.  This mini-history indicates how museums as institutions become more democratizing elements in the course of time. Spirituality left its place to rationality with the enlightenment and these days rationality evolves political rationality. Hence the social justice expectations from museums is increasing day by day. Clearly, ICOM’s definition is highly demanding to change the institutional paradigm and about re-distributing the power in the society.

New Museum Economy

Nevertheless, it is necessary to question this new definition for the museum particularly the social-political adverseness that is being more visible in the age of the internet.  Beyond these fancy words such as democratic, polyphonic, transparent, inclusive, etc. can museums as space and an institution belong to a community? It is different than being a public museum because this is a matter of ownership. Governmental ownership can make a museum public but not inclusive, transparent, and democratic necessarily.  I do believe changing the function and role of the existing museums can be only a symptom of many political and social changes although these demands from large groups are still valuable. However, creating ‘new’ museums with these new features is much more needed. The establishment of a new typology of physical and cognitive space corresponds to a lot of issues, particularly in the art world. Many young artists complain about lack of support, space and many actors from the art world complain about lack of creative freedom. It is evident that a new type of cultural space whether it is called a ‘museum’ or a ‘new museum’ is highly essential. The question arises immediately; who will finance these new models of institutions?