Museum Musings
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Museum Musings

Weighing in on museum definitions

Prompted first by the ICOM definition debates, then by discussions after Seema’s tweet:

Today i sat down to try to conceptualise not what a definition would be, but why it was difficult to agree on one. Responses to Seema’s post were all unsatisfactory to someone.

Caveats first — the sector is inherently White and colonialist, and i haven’t attempted to apply non-western definitions or critiques; not my expertise, not my place. I acknowledge my privilege and my ignorance.

I tried to think through this visually. Hopefully my scruffy sketches (perfect is the enemy of done!) are self-explanatory.

My conclusion is that it’s difficult because we can’t as a sector agree the underlying classification method.

Classification is the operation of distributing objects into classes or groups — which are, in general, less numerous than them

A basic principle is of nesting.

  1. That poodle there is a member of the group called ‘Poodle’
  2. …a dog
  3. …a canine
  4. …a carnivore
  5. …a mammal
  6. …an animal

As a sector, we haven’t been able to assess definition critiques at their true scale: ‘poodle’ or ‘animal’ or somewhere in between.

Any classification system necessarily excludes others. You can’t classify things in two ways at once - well, you can but it doesn’t lead to a single definition, which is ICOM’s objective. It’s pretty easy to critique of all of my systems, above. But that’s not the point. Each one is revealing, and you can read most of the commentary on the ICOM definition as a disagreement on which of these lenses are the ‘best’.

Also, the above is before even considering recent and current shifts such as

  • living things inside museums
  • historic houses containing art
  • galleries acting as kunsthalles
  • museum of ice cream (trolling the entire sector!)
  • interactivity inside museums

I think it’s important to note that our audiences generally don’t care. I am interested in that thing i saw an ad for, but if they call themselves a museum then hell no, i’m not going — said no visitor, ever.

I did try commercial/private/government/charity as a sorting lens — it wasn’t helpful. That’s interesting in itself.

And I would suggest that the organic agglomeration into ‘GLAM’ does indicate a large number of staff and stakeholders perceive the appropriate distinguishing characteristic as ‘has collection of non-living stuff’; as someone who’s motivated by mass audience-centred purpose, this development is one i’m not so comfortable with.

I don’t have a solution. But I am increasingly feeling that a sector-wide issue is an inability to accurately define the problem. Can we actually agree on the problem with the current ICOM definition, and have a clear sense of the purpose of the definition? I’d argue that ‘we can’t agree what a definition is for’ is a bigger problem, and should be tackled first.

I did one last sketch.



Thoughts on museum experiences and leadership

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Paul Bowers

Paul Bowers

Purpose first, then developing people, culture and systems to better deliver. Formerly @reneworgau, @acmi @museumsvictoria @railwaymuseum @NHM_London. he/him