What definition do museums need ?

Paris, Grande galerie de l'évolution - March 10, 2020
ICOM Committees' day


The Extraordinary General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) hold in Kyoto on September 7 decided to postpone its vote around the "new definition of the museum”, which had led to intense debates that were widely reported in the international press.

To be described in a few words and inspired by a rather critical vision of some 20th century museums - especially Western ones - the "new" definition proposed to shift the centre of gravity of museums: from institutions conserving collections and dedicated to the transmission to the public of their artistic, historical, scientific and natural heritage, the museum became a multi-purpose institution, serving human rights as a whole. A proposal breaking away from the definition that had hitherto appeared in ICOM's statutes as well as the regulatory texts of many member countries, distancing itself from the professional anchoring of the organization, and which caused a postponement of discussion. 

A large majority of the members realized that beyond the words they were discovering, it was their common vision of the museums of tomorrow, their missions and their own ethics that were being called into question.  

Among the 4,000 present representatives of ICOM's national and international committees out of the 44,000 that the organization has in 135 countries, many left with a sense of urgency to redefine, not so much the word "museum", but what links museums together and their perspectives for a shared future: "definition" is an operational tool, not a parable; as a tool, it must be simple and consensual, and obviously free of misunderstandings, unclear terms or gaps. Managing to define what brings museums together in a common project is another challenge, a decisive one for a world organization that represents them: what makes a museum singular today and distinguishes it from other "polyphonic and inclusive" places, such as those being created every day in all regions of the world (cultural centres, performance halls, etc.)? In what way the "collections" and the specific work they require, are precisely what makes the meaning of museums and the strength of the social bond they create? What new skills and qualifications are today the basis for professional excellence that guarantees the public's trust in museums to transmit their history? What updating of the code of ethics, the common culture of museum professionals, is made necessary by these changes at work?  

Since Kyoto, these questions have taken place, sometimes intensely, within the many committees of ICOM and even beyond, with other professional museum organizations and among cultural actors, journalists, associations, public officials... 

It is the fruit of this work that ICOM France intends to collect, in March, in Paris. Of course, it will express different and even divergent convictions and proposals. Among the 135 member countries of ICOM, there are so many different cultural models! It is not about trying to harmonize. It is about moving in the same direction and carrying values that bring people together. This is what has united ICOM for over 70 years, and allows professionals, whatever their position in their organization and the position of their organization in their country, to dialogue and to practice their profession.   

The working day was devoted to giving the floor to the representatives of the national and international committees and the alliances who have led discussions with their members over the past six months: expressed positions, expectations and proposals for the future. Round tables compared the approaches and restart the prospective approach.


Official Openings

Bruno David, Chair, Musée national d’histoire naturelle
Regine Schulz, Chair, Advisory Council of ICOM

Presentation of the meeting and its objectives

Juliette Raoul-Duval, Chair, ICOM France

Introduction: Definitions and missions of museums 

François Mairesse, Professor, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

Committees' presentations

Chaired by Marie-Laure Estignard, Director, musée des Arts et Métiers 

Synthesis by Florence Le Corre, conservator

Thinking of the museum as a legal category

Marie Cornu, Jurist and Research Director, CNRS / or her representative

Some linguistic remarks on the definition of "museum"

Jean-Louis Chiss, Professor, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

Round table : What is the purpose of a Museum definition for/by ICOM ?

Chaired by Emilie Girard, Vice-president of ICOM France

Results of the ICOFOM survey

Marion Bertin, ICOFOM Secretary

Round table : How to develop a shared vision : What unites us? Role of Code of Ethics

Chaired by Emilie Girard, Vice-president of ICOM France


 Juliette Raoul-Duval, ICOM France


ICOM France, ICOM Germany, ICOM Europe & ICOFOM


Morning documents

Synotical table
ICOM Germany, ICOM Austria, ICOM Azerbaïdjan, ICOM Bangladesh, ICOM Belgium, ICOM Burkina Faso, ICOM Croatia, ICOM Equateur, ICOM Spain, ICOM Estonia, ICOM France, ICOM Georgia, ICOM Greece, ICOM Ireland, ICOM Israel, ICOM Italy, ICOM Latvia, ICOM Luxembourg, ICOM Netherlands, ICOM Poland, ICOM Portugal, ICOM Slovakia, ICOM Switzerland, ICOM Turkey, ICOM Ukraine, AVICOM, CECA, CIDOC, CIMUSETCIMCIM, COSTUME, DEMHIST, GLASS, ICMAH, ICMEMOICOFOM, ICR, INTERCOM, MPR.  

Afternoon documents

Roundtable 1 - What is the purpose of a museum definition for / by ICOM?

Chaired by Emilie Girard, Scientific Director, head of collections, MuCEM - Vice-president of ICOM France
Rapporteur : Céline Chanas, Chair, FEMS

Participants: Daniele Jalla (ICOM Italy) ; Ech-Cherki Dahmali (ICOM Marocco / ICOM Arab) via Skype ; Arja van Veldhuizen (ICOM Netherlands) ; Marie-Clarté O’Neill (CECA) ; Philippe Büttner (ICOM Switzerland) ; Markus Walz (ICOM Germany)

Roundtable 2 - How to develop a common vision: what unites us? The place of the Code of Ethics…

Chaired by Alberto Garlandini, Vice-president, ICOM International (via video and Skype) & Emilie Girard, Scientific Director, head of collections, MuCEM - Vice-president of ICOM France

Participants: Burçak Madran (ICMAH) ; Chedlia Annabi (ICOM Tunisie) via Skype ;  Koré Escobar Zamora (ICOM Spain) ; Alexandre Chevalier (ICOM Belgium) ; Elke Kellner (ICOM Austria)  via Skype

Synthesis of the presentations of the Committees' day by Markus Walz