Raivis Sīmansons. Creative Museum opinion on the alternative ICOM museum definition

With reference to ICOM Latvia invitation, the thinktank Creative Museum (CM) responds to the ICOFOM questionnaire and gives its opinion on the alternative ICOM museums definition.  



ICOM: What is the role of the current ICOM definition of a museum in your social and professional environment (work)?

CM: The definition sums up the museum’s professional core and is useful in guiding everyday work.


ICOM: Is it included in your national or local legislation? (If “yes”, please specify)

CM: Yes, Section 7 of the Law on Museums, “Concept, Core Functions, and Mission of a Museum”.



ICOM: What are your views on the new definition proposed by ICOM Administrative Board in July 2019? Specify which of the clauses or terms in the presented text you would like to replace, delete or retain. If necessary, specify the reasons why:

The list: promoting of democracy, inclusive, polyphonic, critical dialogue, past, future, current conflicts and challenges, artifacts, samples, entrusted by society, protect, memories, equal rights, equal approach, cultural heritage for all people, non-profit, promoting of participation, transparent, diverse communities, collect, preserve, study, interpret, exhibit, promote global understanding, human dignity, social justice, global equality, global welfare.

CM: Highlighted in bold are those terms which may most directly be subject to reference to Articles 26 and 27 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would respectively allow these terms to be included in the ICOM museum definition, in accordance with the methodology indicated below. 


The definition variant proposed by the thinktank Creative Museum: 

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, sustainable development, enjoyment, and guarantee of equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.


Highlighted in bold are two proposed additions to the current 2007 definition as a direct reference to:

- the UN Resolution on Sustainable Development (2015) (Agenda 2030) with 17 practical goals;

- Articles 26 and 27 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).


Creative Museum’s explanations

Considering the formal ties between ICOM (founded 1946) and UNESCO (founded 1945), i.e. the UN, the origins of the ICOM museum definition are closely linked with the evolution of international law after the Second World War.

The methodology for developing the ICOM definition clearly asserts the principal: it has been regularly expanded in reaction to legal acts, i.e. resolutions and declarations adopted at the highest international level (UN and UNESCO). 

The last such precedent was in 2007, when in reaction to the UNESCO “Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003”, the ICOM museum definition was supplemented with the concept of intangible cultural heritage, thus significantly expanding the sphere of operation of the museum as an institution traditionally associated with material culture.

The current redaction of the ICOM museum definition is basically a summation of the spirit of all post-war international regulations governing the protection of the environment and cultural heritage, focusing on the obligations of the museum as an institution.

As ICOFOM has correctly stated, the alternative definition proposed in 2019 marks a radically new direction in the use of the formerly applied methodology. By rejecting the text inheritance principle with its clear structure developed over many decades, and with each concept justified with reference to international law, it unnecessarily devalues a range of progressive concepts, each of which can be put to use, for example, in the statutes and mission statements of individual museums.

Considering the historical origins of the ICOM museum definition (in close association with UNESCO and the UN) and the text redaction methodology (always with reference to international law), Raivis Sīmansons, as a member of ICOFOM and on the basis of consultations with the members of the non-governmental organisation Creative Museum proposes that the following principals be observed in the further development of the definition:

1. maintaining the inheritance tradition of the core text;

2. correcting or supplementing the in-force definition with a new concept, always referring to international law justifying broader context of the use of the specific concept.[1]


The problem of sustainable development of our planet is today at the top of the global agenda. It is not surprising that in 2019 a range of concepts was offered for an alternative ICOM museum definition, which arise from extensive international discussions around this issue, but which have not been purposefully linked with the specific act of international law thus far.

This act of law is the resolution adopted unanimously (!) by the UN General Assembly in 2015 Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or “Agenda 2030”. It sets out 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) un 169 targets to reduce global poverty and promote sustainable development (economic, social and environmental).

If the international museum community wants to position itself in the field of global sustainability debate in the 21stcentury and continue to develop the museum as an open public space in society in the new decade (2020-2030), it must react to the UN “Agenda 2030”.

Following the tradition of the ICOM definition of a museum (genesis and methodology), the most economic and efficient way to achieve this is to include a direct references in the form of key conceptual into the definition in a similar way to how this was achieved in the 2007 redaction in connection with the 2003 UNESCO Declaration.


The ICOM museum definition must primarily be supplemented with a concept of sustainable development which refers directly to the 2015 UN resolution ANO and provides a broad context, whose expansion and details by points is sourced from the resolution itself as in earlier cases of the definition’s expansion.

In light of the growing inequality, we consider it necessary to raise the profile in the 21stcentury ICOM museum definition of legal aspects of equality pertaining to the rights to education and culture for every individual. These rights are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which also provides a broader interpretative context. 



ICOM: Have you up to now participated in the development process of a new definition of museums headed by ICOM? If yes, please describe how you participated. If you did not participate, please explain why not.

CM: We follow and comment on international discussions. 

- Museologist Raivis Sīmansons moderated the conference “Democratising museums. Management and public quality”, held by the thinktank Creative Museum at the National Library of Latvia on 9 May 2019, during which he had an opinion exchange with Prof. David Fleming – ICOM Administrative Board member and one of the authors of ICOM’s alternative museum definition – on development of the definition and the likelihood of its adoption at the Kyoto General Assembly. This was possibly the only occasion in 2019 when Latvian museum professionals had the opportunity to meet one of the coordinators of the alternative definition to ask questions and express their views.

- We (CM) were neither been invited nor involved in developing the definition at the national level. We were not informed of an evaluation meeting prior to Kyoto, if such took place.


ICOM: As an ICOFOM member, what should this committee’s role be in debates about the new 21stcentury definition? (to be completed by ICOFOM members if considered necessary)

CM: ICOFOM member Raivis Sīmansons:

“As it has to date, ICOFOM’s task is to react to the need to constantly modernize museums, offering balanced and internationally discussed solutions which help museums define their role in society and to develop, while at the same time defending the necessity of passing on tradition, which is the foundation of the museum’s professional purpose. 

I hope that the consensus forged by the NGO of which I am a co-founder on observance of the aforementioned principles, namely inheritance of the text redaction and economic supplementation of the definition’s text with reference to international law, will facilitate the development of an ICOM museum definition which is appropriate to our times and grounded in international law.”


Creative Museum’s opinions were collated by:

Raivis Sīmansons PhD

Co-founder and board member of the thinktank Creative Museum

Riga 28.12.19


Opinions were expressed by the following ICOM members: Līga Lindenbauma, Daina Auziņa, Sniedze Kāle, Lolita Tomsone, Ineta Zelča Sīmansone, Raivis Sīmansons


[1] For example, use of the term ‘intangible cultural heritage’ in the current ICOM museum definition (2007) in connection with the duties of a museum as an institution must be viewed in the context of the UNESCO Declaration (2003).




Raivis Sīmansons