ICOM Kyoto 2019: Curating sustainable futures through museums

I spent last week at the ICOM (International Council of Museums) triennial conference in Kyoto, Japan. ICOM is the international institution representing the museum community, including individual museums, networks and museum workers, with over 40,000 members in 20,000+ institutions, in 141 countries. ICOM was established in 1946, around the same time as a number of multilateral institutions were formed to promote peace, such as UNESCO (founded in the same year), NATO, the EU and WTO. The theme of the conference was ‘Museums as Cultural Hubs: The Future of Tradition’, a theme of concern in an often troubled world, and in the context of rapid social and environmental change. The conference took place in the amazing International Conference Centre, a huge and very impressive building with fantastic architecture. Around 4,600 delegates gathered to explore museums’ place in the world, to share experiences and best practices, and to work together to map out work in the years ahead. I am very grateful to ICOM for a travel grant to support my attendance.

One of the themes of the conference was ‘curating sustainable futures through museums’. This theme was co-ordinated by the Sustainability Working Group (of which I am one of the 12 international members), which was established by ICOM in 2018 to help it mainstream activity in support of sustainability (for which read ‘making the world a better place’) and work towards the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

On the first main day of the conference, a plenary was held in the morning. Morien Rees, of Varanger Museum and Chair of the ICOM Sustainability Working Group gave an overview of our work. Suay Aksoy, President of ICOM, gave a clear message of her, and ICOM’s, commitment to advancing its collective contributions to a better world. Dr. Mamoru Mohri, Director of Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo, gave an introductory speech on sustainability, drawing on his unique perspective as the first Japanese astronaut. He spoke of the beauty of Earth from space, and of the thin veil that is the atmosphere that makes life possible on our planet. He spoke of the concept of Tsunagari (connections), of the connections between all living things, and of the development of human consciousness that allows us to understand our impacts on the world, both positive and negative.

Then four panellists gave their perspectives on what sustainability means to them and how their work connects with the Sustainable Development Goals. Sarah Sutton from Green Museums (US) and We Are Still In talked through what a museum director in an ideal world would experience as they walk to work and see their museum, working as part of its community and with a global awareness. Bonita Bennett from District Six Museum in Cape Town South Africa spoke of the development of her amazing museum, which opened in 1994 in an area that had been demolished under Apartheid, displacing 60,000 people. Cecilia Lam, from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change (at the Chinese University of Hong Kong), the world’s first dedicated climate museum, spoke about the various (and extremely impressive) ways that her museum is connected with local communities and how its programmes contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals, notably around sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), quality education (Goal 4), and partnerships for the goals (Goal 17), among others. Yacy-Ara Froner, from Brazil, spoke about the connections between cultural institutions and indigenous communities, focussing on the key role that indigenous communities play in conserving biodiversity in the Amazon. I then gave an overview of how all museum workers can contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals, drawing on the guide I put together and that you can download here:

In the afternoon, there was a workshop to help participants apply some of the thinking about how to connect with the Sustainable Development Goals into action. The workshop was led by Jenny Newell (of the Australian Museum and Daniel Inoque, both members of our Sustainability Working Group).

On the final day of the conference, resolutions were voted on by the national committees and specialist committees. ICOM UK and ICOM Norway proposed a resolution on sustainability that had been drafted by the Sustainability Working Group.

The Resolution states:

Considering humanity’s current demands on the planet are unsustainable; the planet and all its inhabitants, human and non-human are facing an entangled series of unprecedented environmental and societal crises, the impacts of which: rising inequality, wars, poverty, climate change and loss of biodiversity, are serving to amplify these crises.

Recognising the members of the United Nations have unanimously agreed to implement Agenda 2030, Transforming our World, to address the crises and to initiate the creation of pathways to a sustainable future.

Understanding that museums, as trusted sources of knowledge, are invaluable resources for engaging communities and are ideally positioned to empower the global society to collectively imagine, design and create a sustainable future for all, we recommend that ICOM, its Committees, Alliances, Affiliated Organisations and Secretariat:

  • recognise that all museums have a role to play in shaping and creating a sustainable future through our various programmes, partnerships and operations;
  • endorse the urgent call by ICOM’s Working Group on Sustainability for museums to respond through rethinking and recasting their values, missions, and strategies;
  • become familiar with, and assist in all ways possible, the goals and targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and use the Agenda 2030, Transforming Our World as the guiding framework to incorporate sustainability into our own internal and external practices and educational programming; and
  • empower ourselves, our visitors and our communities through making positive contributions to achieving the goals of Agenda 2030, Transforming Our World; acknowledging and reducing our environmental impact, including our carbon footprint, and helping secure a sustainable future for all inhabitants of the planet: human and non-human.

The resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority (77% of the votes), which was an excellent outcome for the conference and which gives ICOM a clear mandate from its members that they want to advance this work. This is only a start, and is not a standing start as many members and committees are already working hard to reducing their negative impacts and enhancing their positive impacts. I was very honoured to have been a part of this, and look forward to the journey ahead. Anyone not sure how their work can contribute towards a more sustainable future should have a look at the guide I put together, which is in the link above.

Published by Henry McGhie

I have set up Curating Tomorrow as a new business. I know that lots of people, organisations and networks care about the communities they are based in, broader social issues and the natural environment. Curating Tomorrow takes museum-based skills of curating, and applies them to the wider world. It is about helping people and organisations move farther, faster, together to build a better world.

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