What We Have Learned
Finally, at the end of intense conference sessions, it was time for the president of ICOM International Suay Aksoy and our session chairs to review and wrap up the event.
During the last days, many difficult issues had been addressed, yet we also became aware that many more are out there we weren't able to even tackle.
Difficult issues arise in all aspects of the museum work, and lively discussions right from the start of the conference reflected the fact that most of them resonated immensely with the attendees, proving the need of exchange and the joint development of viable strategies.
One of the first keywords given was 'unease' - referring to museum professionals and visitors being confronted with difficult issues alike. Museums need to open up for the uncomfortable or even unspeakable. And they should not shy away from sparking sensations and emotions, be they nice or unpleasant, but at the same time need to develop strategies for dealing with them, and taking special care of the people involved.
Objects remain our main tools, and the way we treat them is highly important for both curators and conservators. Once more the dilemma was addressed that arises when survivors or witnesses of dark events or epochs would rather want objects to be destroyed instead of being cared for and exhibited.
Museums are called to reflect upon who and what we chose to memorise, and what we (un-)intentionally help to forget. The close relationship to political freedom or power respectively was an underlying issue in several presentations. But its also us, the museum professionals, that make a lot of these decisions on a daily basis and sometimes tend to forget our own abilities and responsibilities to unveil important stories.
There is still loads to be done to make the (hi)stories of minorities, lower class(es) and the socially and culturally deprived part of the master narratives on both local and national levels. And when will we start to truly create exhibitions with people, and not about them? While several case studies demonstrated that true and honest dialogue is the key, the process is also long and demanding. Finally, bringing up previously hidden and untold stories also means to reconsider collections and collection strategies.
In many cases, local or even national societies aren't aware of our thinking processes or even actively disagree with certain actions and decisions e.g. as to the what and how of presentations. So we have to become much better in sharing and explaining our values, ideas and issues to ultimately strengthen relevance, acceptance and the positive power of our institutions. Museums need to work towards taking a new stand in issues, and especially so in the pressing issues of the current times, but at the same time we need to be aware of the fact how much our actions might effect society, groups or people and that we must explain why we do things the way we do them.
Every answer we found triggered new questions right away and it became evident that we are nowhere near any final answers or solutions and the work with all kinds of different difficult issues has only just begun. All the examples and case studies presented need to be analysed and strategies developed. As many issues are in one way or the other connected to ethical questions, the proposed new ICOM International Committee could very well become a valuable forum for discussion.
Believing in the power of museums is the best motivation for all of us!
On behalf of the blog team, the editorial and organisational committees: A big thank you to all speakers and participants for filling this conference with inspiring talks, respectful discussions, fruitful conversations - and fun!
For a recap of the presentations follow the links to the abstracts in the conference programme and see the live coverage. Our Storify documents what has been shared on Twitter. We are planning to publish the full papers in our conference proceedings, more information coming soon.