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How the Eurocentric nature of museums is about to change

Saturday September 7 2019

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The International Council of Museums (Icom) is holding a general conference in Koyto Japan this first week of September under the theme: Museums as cultural hubs, the future of tradition.

Kyoto, the city may not have been an accidental location for these important gathering was the the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, until it was relocated to Tokyo in 1868.

It is an extraordinary city in many ways. It displays one of the deepest contradictions I have seen between the respect of history and tradition and the obvious utilisation and integration of technology not only in daily life, but also in carrying traditions into the future.


Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan, with numerous cultural sites and sounds that include, Buddhist temples, shrines, gardens and geisha. One of the things that one notices when visiting these sites is the impeccable order, meticulous conservation and the use of technology to create a balance in humidity in exhibitions that are housed inside modern buildings. Majority of cultural sites are outdoor or in buildings that utilise traditions Japanese architecture, which is extremely environmental friendly.

The Japanese in Kyoto are a silent efficient people who spend a lot of time bowing in greeting to each other and as a sign of respect. One finds themselves reciprocating the gesture as a reflex.

The opening ceremony of the conference was graced by the Crown Prince and Princess Akishino and other numerous government officials. The bowing of he entire ceremony was a fascinating activity of human grace and beauty.

One of the most important discussions that will take place during this meeting, is a proposed change in the definition of the concept of museums. Societies in the world are getting complex and museums find themselves ill prepared to play a role beyond their traditional functions of collecting, preserving and exhibition artefacts.

Professionals in museums are well aware that they risk losing relevance unless they can address current issues of our times, such as migration, social justice, violence in all its shades, climate change and globalisation, among other issues.


It is clear, that museums cannot continue to display things in glass cases and expect the public to be responsive to their need to represent a higher goal, while what worries populations are what may seem like mundane issues, such as fake news and the more depressing realities of poverty and the continued destruction of the environment.

Icom formed a committee over two years ago, that made every effort to reach out to the over forty four thousand members in one hundred and thirty eight countries to craft a new definition. The proposed definition has made many nations especially those in Europe very uncomfortable.

Though they claim that a new definition will deny them government funding if it does not specifically mention the word education, it might be that the Eurocentric nature of the definition of museums is about to change. The new definition is more inclusive of the agendas of previously colonised nations.

It is also amazing that it has taken decades decades after the end of the brutal era of dehumanising certain peoples of the world through colonisation, slavery, cultural appropriation and other untold ills, for museums to address an issue as basic as defining the very concept represent.

The new definition creates space for ambition, where museums are given an opportunity to work within a framework where they care about justice. At the moment for example museums work and guard collections at were acquired through genocides, looting, slavery and the like, but professionals simply sing about the collections without addressing their provenance or the possibility of repatriation and reparation.

The new definition creates possibilities of mainstreaming these issues in the agenda of museums globally.

Whether the new definition is voted for or not, there are several facts that cannot be changed. One is that Japan is one of the best places to vote for such a motion. The next General Assembly is in Prague and the participants will be overwhelmingly European. Two, it is time for museums to get comfortable with the representation of multiple narratives and voices and creates spaces in which it is safe to present ideas that might otherwise seem unsafe.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa