What is a museum and how can its exhibits, which often include the world’s most important cultural properties, be protected from natural disasters, including earthquakes?

Those questions formed the basis of much discussion at the Kyoto assembly of the International Council of Museums, or ICOM, last week. Over 4,000 museum directors, curators, archeologists, historians, anthropologists, art historians and others from around the globe gathered for the weeklong meeting.

The main agenda item was reaching an agreement on what, exactly, a museum is — in order to distinguish such facilities from those designed solely for entertainment or propaganda purposes. The question sounds simple, but reaching agreement on an answer proved difficult.

At the heart of the debate is determining the role museums should play in the 21st century, and the extent to which they should engage the public. Should museums primarily be devoted to historical and archeological research, and physical preservation? Should public exhibits of artifacts be conducted under conditions set entirely by the museum, which in some cases may have changed little in half a century? Or, should there be more engagement with the public in all decisions, including what kinds of exhibits should be financed and shown?

In 2007, ICOM had defined a museum as 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 and enjoyment.”

Before the Kyoto conference, council members were presented with the following proposed revision:

“Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

“Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.”

In the end, however, differences over whether the new definition was appropriate led members to postpone a vote.

“This is not the end, this is just another beginning in this process of redefinition,” said Suay Aksoy, ICOM president, at the conclusion of the meeting on Sept. 7.

Such arguments might seem merely academic. But reaching an internationally agreed definition of a museum has practical economic effects, ranging from what kinds of academic research grants and cooperation from other museums are available, to an institution’s reputation nationally and abroad. Reputation, in turn, can influence government funding and public support for exhibits.

Outside the meeting hall, another area of concern was practical and future-oriented. Preserving valuable artifacts in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster is a major concern for all museums. The Kyoto meeting included an exhibit by Tokyo-based THK Co. Ltd. that drew much attention from the attendees.

The company displayed its seismic isolation technology, including rolling display stands and adjustable seismic isolation platforms that can house, or be placed under, statues and other cultural properties inside a museum. When an earthquake hits, the rolling motion of the stand or platform deflects quake tremors away from the object. THK’s technology is currently being used in the Nara National Museum, the Seikado Bunko Art Museum in Tokyo and at Ganjojuin temple in Shizuoka Prefecture. It’s also being used at the Museo Pieta Rondanini in Milan.

“Japanese regulations emphasize shoring up buildings as a whole against earthquakes. But in the case of museums, it’s also necessary to consider how to protect individual displays and exhibits from seismic damage,” explained Atsuhiro Yoshinaka, a THK spokesman who attended the exhibition.

Preserving cultural properties in times of natural disaster is also the job of the National Task Force for the Cultural Heritage Disaster Risk Mitigation Network. The network was set up under the Cultural Affairs Agency in July 2014, following efforts to rescue, preserve, and restore cultural artifacts after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Today, the network includes 24 museums, libraries, academic associations and other organizations.

Under a nationally approved disaster countermeasures act, each prefecture draws up disaster mitigation plans for cultural properties. But the network notes that these plans vary from prefecture to prefecture, and are often not fully implemented. The network is involved with helping local governments affected by a natural disasters find temporary storage facilities for their artifacts, including specialized freezers and vacuum freezer dryers for salvaged cultural properties salvaged.

“This network is sorely needed, as Japan is hit over and over again by natural disasters that bring great urgency to the effort to protect and salvage our invaluable cultural heritage,” wrote Keiji Matsumura, chair of the task force and president of the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, in a pamphlet about the network that was given to ICOM attendees prior to the meeting.

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