Should the ‘Museum’ Be Redefined? Question Triggers International Debate

In further news: UK museum under fire for using facial-recognition surveillance; ‘Maus’ author Art Spiegelman says Marvel censored Trump criticism

Beyoncé and Jay-Z, ‘Apeshit’, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artists

Beyoncé and Jay-Z, ‘Apeshit’, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artists

What is a ‘museum’, and should we redefine it? That’s the question sparking heated debate within the International Council of Museums (ICOM), according to The Art Newspaper. The consortium’s 40,000 members represent some 20,000 museums. For half a century, ICOM has described the museum as ‘a non-profit institution’ that ‘acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment’. An updated definition was proposed by the organization’s executive board on 22 July. The new text defines museums as ‘democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future’ – institutions which should be ‘participatory and transparent’ and look to ‘contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.’ Critics of the new text think it is overly politicized, and have denounced it as ‘ideological’. Others say it would be disastrous to impose ‘only one type’ of museum. The proposal is now the subject of a petition from 24 national committees – including those of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain – which argues that such a definition would provoke ‘major dissent’ if adopted at ICOM’s general assembly on 7 September in Kyoto, and calls for the postponement of a vote in order to put forward a ‘new proposal’.

The World Museum Liverpool is under fire for using facial-recognition surveillance during its exhibition of Terracotta Warriors from China. Advocacy group Big Brother Watch revealed that the technology was used as a security measure during the show last year, according to the Telegraph – the first time such a tool has reportedly been used by a national museum. The museum has defended its use at a time of ‘a heightened security risk during the exhibition’, and says the decision was taken in consultation with local police and counter-terrorism advisors. Big Brother Watch have decried the spread of facial recognition technology across the UK, from shopping centres to conference venues, as an ‘epidemic’. Director of Big Brother Watch Silkie Carlo said that the collaboration between ‘police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing.’

Art Spiegelman, the creator of the Pulizer Prize-winning graphic Holocaust novel Maus, has said that he pulled an essay from a Marvel Comics collection over pressure to drop his criticism of US president Donald Trump. Spiegelman’s essay was originally written as the introduction to Marvel The Golden Age 1939-1949. The text explored how Jewish artists created the first superheroes in response to the rise of fascism, and drew parallels to the resurgent far-right. ‘In today’s all too real world Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America,’ Spiegelman wrote, in a reference to Trump. The cartoonist says that he was told to remove the line by publishers The Folio Society who said that Marvel wanted to be ‘apolitical’. Spiegelman told The Guardian: ‘I don’t think of myself as especially political compared with some of my fellow travelers […] But when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull, I realised that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction’.

In further news: Christie’s Asia chairman Rebecca Wei has resigned after just eight months in the role; Eric Golo Stone has been named artistic director of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, and will take up the role in January 2020; The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University has named Betti-Sue Hertz as its new director and chief curator; and London gallery Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert now represents the estate of Eduardo Paolozzi.

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