To Whom Does the Museum Belong?

08.07.2021, Podiumsdiskussion

To Whom Does the Museum Belong?


Podiumsdiskussion of the Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau

Do. 08.07.2021 | 13:00 -
Do. 08.07.2021 | 15:00 Uhr

Dr. Zofia Wóycicka

In recent years, the International Council of Museum (ICOM) has been working intensively on a new definition of a museum. As stated in the recommendations submitted by the Standing Committee for Museum Definition to the Executive Board of the ICOM, in museums “the expectations for influence, participation and direct involvement are growing amongst constituents. […] Across the world museums are experimenting with expanding their realms and methods to include and support new paradigms of public participation, in a positive, productive tension between being both an expert institution and a community platform.” These developments, the Committee postulates, have to find expression in a new definition of museums. Whatever the final wording of the new definition will be, the cited document is a manifestation of wider efforts to make museums more democratic, inclusive and participatory. But what does that mean in praxis? Do museums come up to these expectations? What obstacles do they encounter when trying to reach these goals?

The question is manifold. On the one hand, it is the issue of the relations between museums and their sponsors, including notably state and local authorities. In Poland this question became acute after the then newly elected national-conservative PiS government conducted a „hostile takeover“ of a number of Polish museums, including most prominently the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk (2017). However, this was only the end-result of a long-lasting malaise of the Polish cultural policy, which in the recent decades failed to establish a system, which would ensure public museums a greater scientific autonomy and independence from current politics. However, the problem is much more widespread. In Germany the big struggle on how to ensure museums a democratic legitimacy and scientific autonomy at the same time started already in the 1980s/90s as a reaction to new politics of remembrance under Helmut Kohl. However, the solutions elaborated back then are still a subject to disputes and controversies. Problems with dependencies between museums and public and private donors occur also elsewhere. E.g. the newly re-opened Royal Museum of Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren was co-sponsored by Umicore, a Belgian mining company, that operated in Congo since the early 20th century. Critics claim that this fact resulted in the at times unclear stance the new exhibition takes towards the role Belgians played in this region. 

Another important issue is the relation of museums with other agents of memory, including foremost the source communities. Good examples of such community involvement are the intense but often strain relations between the African diasporas in Belgium and the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, or between the Buchenwald Memorial Museum and the former prisoners of Nazi and Stalinist camps. How to empower memory groups, local communities and other agents not compromising on the museum’s professional autonomy? Who is and who is not entitled to participate in the negotiation process and how to structure it? How to mediate between these groups with their, often contradictory expectations towards the museum? What are the conflicts, which use to occur? What good practices were elaborated until now?



1)     Günter Morsch, historian, long-time director of the Sachesenhausen Memorial Museum

2)     Piotr Maciej Majewski, historian, former deputy director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk

3)     Anne Wetsi Mpoma, art historian, activist, journalist, curator, member of the group of experts appointed by representatives of the to African diasporas to consult the Royal Museum for Central Africa

4)     Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture


The discussion will be moderated by: Zofia Wóycicka (German Historical Institute Warsaw).

The organization of the discussion will be financed by the German Historical Institute Warsaw. The event would be at the same time part of a series of events held regularly by the GIH titled Lelewel-Talks.