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  • Ngaire Blankenberg

Should museums scrap their claim to ‘education’?

ICOM's proposed new definition of museums seem to imply we are giving up on education. Should we cut our losses and move on to saving ourselves and the planet?

Visitors at the Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The International Committee on Museums' new definition, due to be voted on at the AGM in September, has provoked much debate. Most of the fuss is about the overtly ‘ideological’ focus of the new definition, and many countries’ national and international committees have called for a postponement of the vote.

In the proposed definition, the raison d’etre for museums ‘education, study and enjoyment’, has been replaced by the more ambitious ‘contribute to human dignity, social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing’. (See both definitions below)

Interestingly, of the 269 extremely diverse submissions ICOM received in its quest to develop a new definition, only 80 (less than 30%) even include the word ‘education’ or ‘learning’.The submissions are mainly normative- in that they describe what museums should be, rather than what they are today. and range from cynical to poetic to incoherent to almost embarrassingly earnest (see my favourites below).

I agree museums should be more explicit in how and why they contribute to today’s challenges, but I also wonder if the new definition signals an admission by museums that they have failed to live up to their ‘educational’ claims.

‘Education’ itself is a term that is continuously being defined and re-defined, but I would argue that most ‘lay people’ accept the definition given by the Oxford Dictionary: 'the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university’. For most, education involves structured learning, educational standards, curricula, and measurable outcomes. You can tell if you’ve learned something and you can tell if you haven’t.

Museums have long been pushing the value of the far less structured or outcomes based ‘informal education’ They speak about the attitudes, values and skills that visits to museums build, yet these are notoriously difficult to measure- making it extremely challenging for museums to prove this is what they do.

The proposed new definitions seem to imply museums around the world are giving up. I think this is premature. I don’t think museums are coming close to fulfilling their potential as learning institutions, but I think they can.

All museums contain rich knowledge resources that can provide visitors with a much more robust educational experience that is short-term and measurable. To start with, museums can do much more when it comes to connecting their content with the classroom even without having to invest in a dedicated education department. Museums can ask themselves how (or whether) teachers and learners can even access, let alone use, their content.

Too often museum knowledge resources remain ‘locked’- accessible only through a visit, or through a hard-to-find website, and impossible to re-purpose, re-use or evaluate.

Can museums develop into truly 21st century teaching tools that support ‘formal education’ and social and environmental justice?

My new project is betting on it… and I will need your help!

Watch this space

Some interesting museum definitions from the ICOM proposals

#69 United Kingdom: A museum is a word about which people with little experience of the real world navel gaze.

#33 Columbia: The Museum is a Cultural Horizon where human life forms converge with nature and the universe.

#108 Greece: The factory of our dreams.

#159 Germany: Museums should be a mirror of the real world with comments.

#173 Japan: A space where object are made to speak to human kind who long for story to be told.

#202 Brazil …a museum is like a large living tree, planted in a soil rich of heritage, memories and cultural identities.

#243 Greece…Museums are like kaleidoscopes. Crystals are the people, spaces and objects. ..

The handful with Education as their focus:

#63 Slovakia: ‘Museum is our modern school;

#79 Norway ‘Museums are fundamentally public spaces for lifelong informal learning’;

#111 Taiwan ‘Museum is a smart learning centre’.

ICOM's proposed new definition:

‘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, social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

ICOM's current definition:

“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

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