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Conference: Museums and the Idea of Historical Progress

Event date: 
Wednesday, 7 November, 2012 to Friday, 9 November, 2012
Organised by: 
ICMAH, ICOM’s International Committee for Museums and Collections of Archaeology and History
COMCOL, ICOM’s International Committee for Collecting
ICOM South Africa

ICMAH, COMCOL and ICOM South Africa have the pleasure inviting you to participate in their joint international conference. The conference will be dedicated to “Museums and the Idea of Historical Progress”. It will be held in Cape Town (Republic of South Africa).
The topic of the conference is to examine various social, political and economic utopian ideologies and experiments and the way they are represented in museums and their collections. You are cordially invited to present a proposal for a panel session and/or a paper pertaining to the general topic of the meeting.

The idea of the modern museum, at the time of its invention in various European countries during the age of high colonialism and the industrial revolution, was based on a number of attributes that sit comfortably with the idea of utopia. The promise of modernism, i.e. the notion that progress and equity is guaranteed by the state and manifest in society, has indeed been an embedded phenomenon underlying much of human history. These seemingly predominant Western paradigms influence many of our museums until today.

What all utopias in past and present have in common is the inspiration of large groups of people by the possibility of a future society, free from a difficult present. Varieties of capitalism, socialism, liberalism, nationalism, colonialism, cold war ideological battles, and totalitarianism generated a myriad of social systems and ideologies as expressions of utopias to be achieved. The theories and practice of building a better and new society underlie to this day many a museum’s values, vision and practice everywhere in the world.

Political, economic, social and cultural differences between and within North and South, and also between Asia and the Western World, of course exist. They have inspired a variety of ideas about human rights, tolerance, recognition and acceptance of diversity in our societies. By implication, these also inspired models and ideas to make living in peace and harmony possible. Despite all their differences, it can be argued, that this has been a theme of enduring significance in museums.

The last two decades it seems the world has been thoroughly turned upside down. Much discussed issues are the fall off grace of industrialism or capitalism, the violence and discrimination of post-colonialism, the broken promises of nationalism or even supra-nationalism, of socialist or communist internationalism, and the ending of the Cold War with the alleged certainty of a free Europe. Familiar utopian ideologies no longer offer the prospect of a solution.

The future seems ambiguous and uncertain. At the same time, societies are developing new - more interdisciplinary and global - ways of rethinking utopian ideas of capitalism, colonialism, empire building, modernism, and post-colonialism. It means for some that the world is heading for a new utopian dream of less dependence on former colonial powers, of greater South-South, and East-South political and economic co-operation, of a greater equal treatment of citizens and nations. Or is this another mirage, another dystopia disguised as utopia?

The conference will examine the following issues:
Can utopias be recognised in the history of our museum and its collections? Did museums documented utopias of the past? If so, how?
Should museums be forums for reflecting the intellectual promises of the utopian world and the actually existing conditions? Do museums have a responsibility to discuss the issues as mentioned above? How can this be implemented in the collection profile of the museum and in collecting and exhibition policies?
Does the promise of new utopias require an international ethical reconsideration of the existing distribution of museum collections? How could this look like in practice?
Do museums of the South have any new or innovative insights?

ICMAH, COMCOL and ICOM-SA invite all museum professionals and researchers to submit proposals for presentations and to participate in the above conference. Presentations are limited to 20 minutes.
The length of abstracts should not exceed 250 words. Also, include a short CV with the contact address and the professional details (name, position, address, telephone and fax numbers, e-mail). Presenters would be expected to submit a final copy of their papers for publication purposes before the conference.
Please, submit the abstract of your presentation in English by 30 June 2012.


Jari Harju, ICMAH,
Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, COMCOL,