Heritage, justice and the future of culture

A crucial debate is taking place over the function of cultural institutions. The concerns of a rising generation about race, gender and historical justice have to be heard. But it’s equally important to defend heritage collections and the cultural achievements of the past.

Last October an international group of 151 leading intellectuals, writers and artists signed A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, applauding the rise of protests for racial and social justice but decrying an accompanying “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity”. They particularly deplored a tendency on the part of institutional leaders to resort to “panicked damage control” and no-platform people with controversial views, such as Australia’s foremost intellectual Dr Germaine Greer. No-platforming is the practice now referred to by the rather ugly name of “cancel culture”.

Among the signatories were Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis.

Now a parallel discussion has resulted in high-profile resignations from the International Council of Museums (ICOM) which represents professionals worldwide. Since its Kyoto conference in September 2019, the organisation has been unable to agree to a proposed new definition of what constitutes a museum. The London-based Art Newspaper reported (13 August) that ICOM’s Turkish president Suay Aksoy and Jette Sandahl, the Danish curator heading the drafting committee, have both resigned.

The existing ICOM definition reads: “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.” It is the definition UNESCO endorsed at its 2015 Paris Conference.

In the proposed alternative, “museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures”. The new text was no doubt an attempt to make way for new voices, particularly from the ex-colonial world, but many seasoned professionals baulked at the change.

Hugh Maguire, Irish museum specialist and chair of ICOM’s Working Group on National Committees, said: “No one disagrees with the inspiration and sentiments for democracy and participation” but the proposed text was not a definition. It made no mention at all of either collections or education – the most fundamental functions of the sector.

Wencke Maderbacher, head of education at Denmark’s Moesgaard Museum, has pointed out that educators have been at forefront of the museum response to COVID-19, with online tours and interactive sites. In many cases they have long been “among the first professionals in museums to identify the need to open up to a broader target group by listening to their communities.” (ICOM site, 12 August)

However well-intentioned the suggested change, by failing to give central place to collections and education it leaves cultural institutions more vulnerable to pressures from governments that want them to dumb down, corporatise, commercialise their audience appeal and become money-spinning entertainment venues.

Those are precisely the kind of pressures at work in Australia under the Coalition Governments of Scott Morrison federally and Gladys Berejiklian in NSW. Their spending cuts have slashed curatorial, conservation and education departments across the board. For the Coalition, museums are pawns in a game with the big end of town (Liberals) or fodder for electoral pork-barrelling (Nationals).

For the Coalition, the “heritage” role of museums is worthwhile only for the purpose of propaganda: half a billion dollars can be allocated to expanding the Australian War Museum and glorifying war, while other national institutions are cut to the bone.

The Berejiklian Government in NSW has taken disregard for heritage to the extreme in its plans for a new Powerhouse Museum at Parramatta, where the fight to preserve historic buildings and save the collection is far from over despite the recent backflip which leaves the original institution at Ultimo. “Heritage is old-fashioned” tweeted Labor’s David Borger, one of Arts Minister Don Harwin’s appointees to the Powerhouse Trust.

This comes at a time when governments should be enabling museums to expand the scope of heritage to encompass the rich history of First Nations peoples and of the many immigrant peoples who make up modern society.

Clearly it’s time to be reminded of the four primary functions of museums, spelt out by UNESCO at its 2015 Conference:

Preservation – “ensuring the integrity of the collections”.

Research – “to provide opportunities to reflect on history in a contemporary context”.

Communication – “to actively interpret and disseminate knowledge on collections”.

Education – “educating audiences about the subject matters of their collections and about civic life, as well as helping to raise greater awareness of the importance of preserving heritage, and fostering creativity”.

The same UNESCO resolution reminded member countries of their responsibilities to “promote the safeguarding of the diversity and identity that characterise museums and collections”.

Noting the trend for institutions to become more reliant on revenue-generating activities, it also warned: “Member States should not accord a high priority to revenue generation to the detriment of the primary functions of museums. Member States should recognise that those primary functions, while of utmost importance for society, cannot be expressed in purely financial terms.”

Australian governments and museum boards, please note.

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Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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