The annual gathering of the ICOM (International Committee of Museum) general conference has just successfully taken a bow, ending its rendition on August 28th in Prague, Czech Republic. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and after almost three years of waiting, the 28th edition of the general conference, titled 'The Power of Museums,' brought along topics that are not only emergent to the museum communities but also the society. There were four overarching and close-knitted topics put onto the main stage: Purpose: Museums and Civil Society, Sustainability: Museums and Resilience, Vision: Museums and Leadership, Delivery: Museums and New Technologies, seeking to provide a holistic discussion on how museums as a community can better engage in more than cultural events.
As a part of the community, the National Human Rights Museum of Taiwan has also participated in the conference, presenting an in-house participatory education method to our exhibitions, leading the way to foster more understanding and acknowledging the ongoings of transitional justice. During three days of the conference, following the topics ICMEMO (International Committee of Memorial Museums in Remembrance of the Victims of Public Crimes) presented, a few pressing issues were brought up and needed our closer attention.
Museum and Self-empowerment: Providing Aids in The Time of War
On February 24th, the Russian army started to use military force to invade the Eastern part of Ukraine, killing tens of thousands and more. Since then, Ukrainian cultural institutions have been under attack, and archival and memory preservation conditions have become extremely dire. Marta Havryschko, director of the Barby Yarn Interdisciplinary Studies institute, fled from Ukraine to Switzerland, demonstrated a graph of the numbers of pieces of culture that were either eradicated or damaged in the war: 36 museums, 165 buildings of religions, and 219 ancient buildings and counting. The war changed people's lives and living and the way how museums give support to the community. Museums and Institutions in Ukraine like Barby Yarn Memorial Centre started to provide shelter and warm meals, giving up salaries to defend human rights in Ukraine. In addition to providing civil support, the memorial centre started the mission of gathering testimonies against Russia with different law enforcement, such as the international court in the Hague and digitalizing Ukrainian archives. Data digitalization has become one of the most unavoidable and vital tasks in 21st-century museums; it is now proven more so in a time of war. Though the case of Ukraine is something no one would dare and imagine living in, Havryschko's demonstration of how Ukrainian museums and cultural institutions with such adversity indeed show the potentiality of museums being more than a place of learning.
Museum and Propaganda: Political Indoctrination in a Seemingly Neutral Space
As a vessel of culture and knowledge, museums carry a fair share of responsibilities in conveying information and communicating unprejudiced facts within either current or historical events. Ideas related to personal stories and experiences emerge when one is confronted with materials, be it an object or a text. It is shown in different studies that curation in museums or the museum itself is hardly a neutral act. Methods and placements tell a story from specific views. Using his experience founding the Museum of Second World War in Gdansk, Professor Pawel Machcewicz told a compelling example of how the right-wing influences in the state heavily dictated the museum's direction; information that did not display patriotism was a betrayal to the state. The establishing thus came to a halt and was put into more hurdles than ever. Cultural institutions built with state resources and not to say under a totalitarian regime risk the danger of having a single narrative. Following this direction, Voytech Kynci from the Academic Science of the Czech Republic reminded us that the sovietisation of his nation should not be forgotten and should be stressed as a difficult but essential past.
In a similar vein, Babara Thimm, the speaker from the former Khmer Rouge prison of S21 in Cambodia, now a museum that documents pains and hurts from the oppressive, dictatorial past under Khmer Rouge, mentioned their directorial method to deal with people questioning their efforts is to provide with factual materials and let the evidence speaks for itself. A refugee fleeing to the United States, Cuban artist Geandy Pavón also warned the public off from believing everything institutions in an oppressive regime could tell us.
Museum and Dialogue: Ever-evolving Exchanges to a Brighter Future
Museums in the 21st century are a space for the public. Despite still being an elite institution in some eyes, more and more educators are bringing participatory and bottom-up methods into museums to include more voices than their own. The museum needs to engage the public and bring in not just more narrative from the citizens but also contexts surrounding an era, historical events, and everyday life of people in the society. Telling stories different from the textbooks, museum practitioners from Portugal and Spain, Aeda Rechna and Almudena Cruz Yeba, both reiterated the importance of continuing to address uncomfortable histories, moreover, inviting the community to participate in memory-building, event-constructing, and re-discovering their cultural heritage. Dialoguing and exchanging discourses have become one of the most valuable tools for building the bridge between the unknown and unheard-of.
In her keynote speech about the museum and civil society, anthropologist and museologist Margarita Reyes Suárez further stressed to be aware of the capitalization and Americanisation of museums in tourism. Cultural heritage needs to be preserved in more ways than just incoming capital. In Suárez's passionate account of restoring the museum's responsibility to the people in the community, she also emphasized decolonizing museums through the western lens and giving more spaces to cultural diversity. "Museums should be a place that listens and where people are heard." She concluded.
In the same spirit, by demystifying queer people's existence in Czech Republic's past, Ladislav Jackson urged the museum community to steer away from heteronormative thinking of gender binary, taking careful but progressive steps in recognizing queer people's rights to life and rights to be remembered. Non-heterosexual people's lives and objects need to be documented and archived, just as every other fragment of history. Therefore, inclusivity for queer museum practitioners and researchers should also be given more weight and attention in the museum realm. Only by opening the channel to the commons and communities on which the museums stand on equality and more truthful documentary can slowly be achieved.
Throughout the development of the museum, starting with Alexandria, collecting and learning have always been its motive and purpose. The modern museum carries this duty with it and takes a more significant and inclusive stride for the citizens and users of the museum space. During the conference, it is shown that collectiveness in a society forms and signifies strength. The modern museums should, now more than ever, be a community and fortify the link between you, me, and everybody else.