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 In English / Professional development / Literature on museology / P. van Mensch „Towards a methodology of museology" / 03 The International Committee for Museology


Peter van Mensch „Towards a methodology of museology” (PhD thesis, University of Zagreb, 1992) 

International Committee for Museology 

Founded in 1976 the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM) has become the third largest international committee within the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The committee can be considered the main platform for international museological discussion. Members of the International Committee for Museology are as such members of the International Council of Museums. However, participation in ICOFOM activities is not limited to formal membership of either ICOM or ICOFOM. Participation from outside these organisations is even sought after. So, in fact we are dealing with two populations within the committee: (1) the ICOFOM membership as a whole, and (2) the participants in ICOFOM activities. On the basis of a quantitative and qualitative analysis of both populations it will be attempted to define the professional context of the international museology discussion.

ICOFOM’s pre-history 

Two strong personalities have put their stamp upon this committee as successive chairmen: Jan Jelinek and Vinos Sofka. Both have their personal and professional roots in Brno (Czechoslovakia), a town which, curiously enough, has continued to play a special role in the history of ICOFOM and museology from the early 1960s onwards.

In 1951 Jelinek (born 1926, graduated in anthropology at Brno university in 1949) was appointed curator at the Moravian Museum [1]. In 1958 he became director of the museum[2]. In this position he made great efforts to convert the once neglected provincial museum into a truly scientific as well as an educational institute[3]. He launched an extensive reconstruction programme of the museum premises and initiated new departments. For example, he established a scientific institute-cum-museum, Anthropos, based on multidisciplinary research of the Pleistocene period. The museum, in fact a department of the Moravian Museum, was opened in 1964 in a purpose built building. Physical and cultural anthropology, palaeontology and geology were integrated in order to obtain a better insight into the life of Pleistocene man (Jelinek 1969). According to Novotny there was no precedent for such a concept, which offered a complex approach to the period to be researched (Novotny 1986: vi).

Because of this innovative approach Jelinek very soon attracted attention not only within the field of palaeoanthropology but also from the international museum world. His first museological publications concerned the concept of Anthropos in which he explained the multidisciplinary approach[4]. Among those who became interested in Jelinek’s concept of a multidisciplinary museum was George-Henri Rivičre, who visited the Moravian Museum in 1964. This visit contributed to the development of Rivičre’s museological thinking, which eventually led to the concept of the ecomuseum. It was also Rivičre who introduced Jelinek into ICOM, where soon after Rivičre’s visit Jelinek was asked to become chairman of the International Committee of Regional Museums. In 1965 Jelinek was elected chairman of ICOM’s Advisory Committee, while in 1971 he became president of ICOM, a function he held for two terms of office, till 1977.

In the meantime, having been appointed director of the Moravian Museum, Jelinek was confronted with a lack of consensus among his curators about the policy of the museum. As the curators felt themselves scientific researchers rather than museum workers, Jelinek was forced to consider two basic questions: (a) what is the profile of the museum profession, and (b) what is the essence of scientific research within the museum context?[5] The importance of these questions prompted him to take two initiatives: to create a department of museology at the Moravian Museum and to (re)establish a chair in museology at the Jan E. Purkinje University (Brno). The department of museology, created in 1962, had a two-fold task. Firstly, it should provide a theoretical basis to the policy of the Moravian Museum itself, and secondly it should give advice to the smaller museums in the region. Having been elected a member of the Scientific Committee of the university, Jelinek succeeded in establishing a department of museology at the university too[6]. This department had to cater for the training of future curators. Established in 1963 this department was the first post-war university-based training opportunity in Europe[7]. Initially Jelinek himself directed the courses, but soon Zbynek Stransky (from Prague) became his assistant. In 1964 Stransky was given full responsibility for both the departments of museology of the museum and of the university[8].

As chairman of the Advisory Committee and subsequently as president of ICOM, Jan Jelinek discovered that the problems he had met in the museum were also found within ICOM. There was little rapport between the growing number of specialist committees. The discussions about establishing special committees on museums of literature and of Egyptology prompted Jelinek to propose the foundation of a committee on museology, which could serve as the “conscience “ of ICOM. The proposal met with approval from the Advisory Committee in June 1976, after which it was discussed by the Executive Council[9].

The task of the newly proposed committee was described in the document The establishment of a new international committee on museology: “Every branch of professional activity needs to be studied, developed and adapted to changing contemporary conditions – and not least that of museology. To pursue the aims of distributing knowledge of modern museological ideas and to help in different fields of museological development, this will be the programme of the ICOM International Committee for Museology”.[10]

The Executive Council decided to establish an ad hoc working group to meet before the next General Conference in order to define the work of the new committee. This meeting was held at Brno in March 1977[11]. At the 34th session of the Advisory Committee (May 1977) the report of the ad hoc working group was approved and ICOFOM was accepted as a new international committee[12]. Its chairman was Jelinek, then retiring president of ICOM[13]. At that time the committee counted thirteen members[14].

First period, 1977-1982 

It took some time for the committee’s administrative and scientific structure to take shape. [15] Most of the documents had a rather ad hoc character. The first constitutive document (Rules) was a brief, rough outline, defining the aims of the committee as:

  1. to establish museology as a scientific discipline;
  2. to study and to assist in the development of museums and the museum profession, to study their role in society, their activities and their functions;
  3. to encourage critical analysis of the main trends of museology.
The first triennial programme focussed on three points: (a) research in museums, (b) relations between governmental bodies, other sources of funding, and museums, and (c) relations between museums and other cultural institutions[17]. The first point became the theme of ICOFOM’s first annual meeting (Warsow 1978). It reflected Jelinek’s life-long interest: the identity of research typical for the museum[18]. Not surprisingly, the theme of ICOFOM’s second annual meeting (Torgiano 1979) referred to another topic typical for Jelinek: multi- and interdisciplinarity in museum work.

Jelinek was a practical man rather than a philosopher. The topics of the first triennial programme followed from his practical outlook. The theme of the third meeting (Mexico 1980), however, shifted the perspective to the ‘metamuseological’ level as it focussed on Systematics and systems in museology. The triennial programme for 1980-1983 listed four topics to be discussed within the committee: (a) selection of museum objects and building of collections, (b) museology and its applications to different types of museums, (c) museology and public relations, and (d) systems of museology[19]. Only the last theme was actually dealt with (Paris 1982).

In September 1979 the International Committee for Training of Museum Personnel met in Leicester. Vinos Sofka reported on behalf of ICOFOM about the committee’s first meeting in Warsaw. The reactions were mixed.  Surprisingly George-Henri Rivičre reacted very negative. Another critic was Giljam Dusee, first director of the newly founded Reinwardt Academie (Amsterdam). Both speakers represented a considerable group of ICTOP members with doubts concerning content and ideological orientation of ICOFOM. Many ICTOP members felt uncomfortable with the number of Eastern European museologists in ICOFOM. This feeling was made explicit by Burcaw (ICTOP member) in his contribution to the joint ICOFOM-ICTOP meeting in 1983 (Burcaw 1983). Despite the doubts, and sometimes even hostilities, ICOFOM and ICTOP organised joint meetings in 1983 and 1984. Many voting members of ICOFOM are non-voting member of ICTOP and vice versa.

After 1979 Jelinek more or less lost control over the committee. This was partly due to a decreasing interest on his part. At the end of his career he wanted to concentrate on his scientific work (anthropology). Another problem was his delicate health, which forced him to set priorities. The main reason, however, was the lack of support from the Czech authorities. As result of his activities and opinions expressed in 1968, Jelinek was forced to resign from the position of director of the Moravian Museum. Having been elected president of ICOM he was allowed to continue his international activities. The end of the presidency was the end of his activities as simply no money was made available any longer.

The committee’s third annual meeting (Mexico 1980) ended in chaos. Only a few of the scheduled lectures actually took place, while Rivičre tried to impose his own approach on the committee’s sessions[20]. Due to lack of a stimulating chairman the committee failed to meet in 1981. The meeting in 1982 (Paris) took again a rather chaotic turn. As in Mexico, Rivičre tried to manipulate the meeting, which was chaired by Sofka since Jelinek was unable to attend[21]. The main problem was the status of ecomuseums and the so-called new museology within ICOFOM. As a kind of compromise it was decided to have two symposiums during the next meeting (London 1983): one in cooperation with ICTOP about the methodology of museology, and one about ecomuseums. 

Second period, 1983-1989

At the 1983 annual meeting in London Sofka was elected chairman. Sofka (born 1929; graduated in law at Prague University in 1952) had worked from as deputy director of the Archaeological Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences at Brno from 1956 till 1968. He succeeded to escape the country in 1968. In Stockholm he worked successively as Head of the Exhibition Department, the Management and Administration Department, and the Museum Development Department of the Museum of National Antiquities[22]. Jelinek en Sofka had got to know each other in Brno, and Jelinek saw in Sofka the enthusiastic organiser the committee needed.

During his two terms as chairman, Sofka developed a modus operandi which gradually became characteristic for ICOFOM and formed the basis of its unexpected success. It was based on three interconnected symposia and extensive publishing. The basic document is the ICOFOM aims & policy, which is the basis for the Long-term programme. For each triennial period, the long-term programme is translated into a Triennial programme. The ICOFOM aims & policy and the Long-term programme were discussed and finally accepted at the 1986 meeting in Buenos Aires.

The Long-term programme mentions the following means of achieving the objectives given by the ICOFOM aims & policy: symposia, lectures, workshops, publications and museological exhibitions. The core activity is the annual symposium, which is seen as a place for direct discussion and debate on museological questions. In addition lectures may be organised, offering the opportunity to benefit from the unique circumstances afforded by the host country and its institutions. In practice this idea resulted into seminars, i.e. sessions during which a group of invited speakers presented their ideas and experiences, followed by discussion.

1984 seminar Museums in society and their role in the cultural policy of the country. Case study: the Netherlands (joint session with the International Committee for the Training of Personnel)

1985 lecture programme on the new museology movement

1986 seminar Cultural policy, museums and museology in Latin America (joint session with the ICOM national committees of the Latin American countries and the regional secretariat of ICOM)

1987 (a) seminar Cultural policy, the heritage, museums and museology in Finland

       (b) seminar Cultural policy, the heritage, museums and museology in Sweden

       (c) seminar The need of museology

       (d) seminar National museum documentation centres – cornerstones of an international museum documentation network

1988 seminar Case study: the heritage, museums, museology and the Indian cultural policy

1989 (a) seminar ICOFOM 1976-1988 – assessment of achievements

       (b) seminar Dynamic preservation (joint session with the Working Group on Theory and History of Restoration of the ICOM Committee for Conservation)

       (c) seminar Regional museums as generators of culture (joint session with the International Committee for Regional Museums)

       (d) seminar Museology and landscape preservation

A special activity mentioned in the Long-term programme is the ICOFOM Museology Workshop. In 1986 the first international workshop was organized in cooperation with the Nationales Museumsrat der DDR (see below). The Long-term programme also mentions the possibility to organize regional workshops providing the opportunity to meet locally to boost membership participation. Finally, the possibility of museological exhibitions is mentioned. These exhibitions could give an overview of relevant museological publications from all over the world. During the ICOM General Conferences in 1986 and 1989 such exhibitions have been organized, but without direct involvement of the committee.

At the end of the second period ICOFOM appeared to have succeeded in having acquired respectability as an international platform for theoretical discussion, while at the same time museology itself seems to have become recognized and accepted as an academic discipline. The many symposiums and seminars, as well as the publications resulting from those meetings produced much useful material on the three fields mentioned in the Rules. Even though the distribution of this material was limited, it wielded a stimulating influence. The invitations to ICOFOM key members to participate in a large number of meetings on the theory of museology organized by national and international organisations contributed to the spreading of the ideas that were developed within the committee. The amount of these meetings in 1988 prompted Sofka to speak about ‘the museology boom in 1988’ and ‘1988 as break-through-year of museology’ [23]. After ten years the committee seems to have reached a position in which its aims have acquired new impetus.

The meetings 

The main activities of the committee are concentrated on the annual symposia. The theme of these symposia arises from the Long-term programme and is usually decided upon during the meeting in connection with the ICOM General Conference[24]. During the 1983 meeting a model was worked out to provide a structure for the successive symposia, based on the interrelationship society-object-museum[25]. Specific topics were to be chosen within these parameters. The model was followed during the triennial period 1983-1986, but abandoned in the next period (though retained in the triennial programme)[26]:

1984 (Leiden) Collecting today for tomorrow – highlighting the relationship between object and society

1985 (Zagreb) Originals and substitutes in museums – highlighting the relationship between object and museum

1986 (Buenos Aires) Museology and identity – highlighting the relationship between museum and society

1987 (Espoo) Museology and museums

1988 (Hyderabad) Museology and developing countries

1989 (Den Haag) Forecasting – a museological tool?

At the invitation of the Nationales Museumsrat der DDR a museology workshop was organized. The workshop was held in Berlin and Alt-Schwerin (16-22 May, 1986). Fifteen experts from thirteen countries participated (on invitation), ten of them members of the board of ICOFOM[27]. The aim of the workshop was to finalize the study on the first theme of the publication Museological Working Papers: ‘Museology – science or just practical work?’. In addition papers gathered at ICOFOM meetings (and published as ICOFOM Study Series) were studied as well[28]. During the workshop is was concluded that there was no consensus as to the essence, intent nor appropriate direction of the discipline. An attempt was made to distinguish some main lines of thought. This work was used as the starting point of the analysis given in Chapter 4.[29]

After the first workshop no second one was organized. In order to provide for some structure to assess the work of the committee two seminars were organized: one in 1987 on ‘The need for museology’ and one in 1989 on ‘ICOFOM 1976-1989: assessment of achievements’. The papers that were presented at these seminars were published in Museological News, and were thus available to all members of the committee.

The publications

Although the discussions did not always lead to satisfactory results, the successive issues of ICOFOM Study Series from a tangible proof of the committee’s academic potential. The large number of papers serve as a sort of goldmine which can also be explored outside the context of the original symposiums. They are used in readers by different museum studies programmes, and many of the papers are translated and published in other languages.

ISS 1  Methodology of museology and professional training (1983)

ISS 2  Museum-territory-society (1983)

ISS 3  Addenda (1983)

ISS 4  Addenda 2 (1983)

ISS 5  Addenda 3 (1983)

ISS 6  Collecting today for tomorrow (1984)

ISS 7  Collecting today for tomorrow, comments (1984)

ISS 8  Originals and substitutes in museums (1985)

ISS 9  Originals and substitutes in museums, comments (1985)

ISS 10 Museology and identity (1986)

ISS 11 Museology and identity, comments (1986)

ISS 12 Museology and museums (1987)

ISS 13 Museology and museums, comments (1987)

ISS 14 Museology and developing countries (1988)

ISS 15 Museology and developing countries (1988)

ISS 16 Forecasting – a museological tool? (1989)

The first issue of Museological News (MN) was published in May 1981. It was edited by the committee’s secretary and assistant-secretary André Desvallées and Gerard Turpin. After two issues the production of the bulletin was taken care of by Vinos Sofka. The size of the publication increased from 12 pages (MN 2) to 45 pages (MN 3), reaching a maximum of 287 pages in 1988 (MN 11). From its 9th issue onwards Museological News was published annually instead of biannually. The bulletin served two purposes. The main purpose was to keep the committee’s membership informed about administrative matters. Gradually (from the 9th issue onwards) papers referring to the topics of the meetings were included. Most op de papers presented at ICOFOM seminars were published in Museological News.

The main publication series of the committee was supposed to be Museological Working Papers (MuWoP). This ambitious initiative is well documented in a series of proposals, reports, etc. published in the journal itself and in Museological News[30]. At the meeting of the committee in 1978 an Editorial Board was formed[31]. The activities of this working group resulted in the publication of MuWoP 1 in 1980. The journal was intended to be an open forum focussing on the fundamental questions within the field of museology. The first issue raised the question that had been discussed within and without the committee for years: is museology a science? By a letter to the secretaries of all national and international committees of ICOM the international museum community was invited to contribute[32].

After two issues the publication of this journal was no longer possible due to lack of financial support. A lot of interesting material remained unpublished since it had been the intention to publish the final reports of all ICOFOM meetings in MuWoP. Consequently, papers started to be published in Museological News (hence its increase in size). The publication of MuWoP being interrupted, ICOFOM Study Series became the focal point of the publications programme. However, ISS had a limited circulation as it was only distributed among the contributors and the participants of the symposiums. The distribution of ISS illustrates the committee’s main dilemma. The scientific work of the committee was supposed to be based on the open forum idea. Everybody should be able to contribute to the conference themes, either in person or by writing. But, the main body of material was not widely distributed. This hampered the transfer of points of view from one symposium to the next. This is illustrated by the fact that only a very small number of authors refer to earlier ISS papers. The wider circulation of both MuWoP issues is shown by a more frequent mentioning.

  number of authors referring to other publications number of titles mentioned number of ICOFOM titles mentioned number of non-ICOFOM titles mentioned number of non-museological titles mentioned
1983-1 7 37 13 11 13
1983-2 3 9 0 6 3
1984 7 27 3 19 5
1985 8 20 2 13 5
1986 15 129 9 51 69
1987 17 83 18 47 18
1988 16 88 15 40 33
1989 15 19 13 69 37

Table 1. References to other publications by contributors of ICOFOM symposia, 1983-1989. 

ICOFOM and New Museology

The difficulties that arose during the Mexico 1980 and Paris 1982 meetings were caused by difference of opinion about the position of ecomuseums and new museology within the committee. A group of members, headed by Rivičre, attempted to make new museology the focus of the committee’s policy.

During the 1983 meeting the Canadian ‘ecomuseologist’ Pierre Mayrand proposed the forming of a working group on ‘muséologie communautaire’[33]. The newly elected board decided ‘to establish only function-oriented working groups and not constitute any permanent working groups to deal with the different problems within the field of museological research’[34]. Moreover, the board considered that ‘in a situation, where the principal matters concerning museology, as such, are still being studied and discussed, and where the justification of museology – and consequently of ICOFOM – is even called into question, constituting working groups for detailed museological matters, and especially for different “museologies”, could cause not only a split in limited personnel resources but first of all interference in the committee’s work in its entirety’. Nevertheless, Mayrand was asked to establish a temporary working group to prepare a special session on ecomuseums and new museology during the 1984 meeting of ICOFOM which was to take place in Canada.

The 1984 meeting of ICOFOM did not take place in Canada[35]. Thus the temporary working group had nothing to prepare, nor did it take any other initiative regarding ICOFOM. Instead something else happened. Disappointed by the lack of response during the 1983 meeting in London and by the failure to organize the committee’s annual meeting in Canada[36], the Canadian museologists organized the First International Workshop for Ecomuseums and New Museology in Quebec (8-13 October 1984). At this meeting a policy statement was adopted, known as the Declaration of Quebec (Mayrand 1986).

The Declaration of Quebec expressed ‘the will to establish an organizational basis for joint reflection and experiments’. ICOM was requested to accept the creation of a special international committee on ecomuseums. The creation of an international Federation for New Museology was also proposed. The first request was rejected by ICOM[37]. At the second international meeting of this group (Lisbon 1985) the Movement International de Muséologie Nouvelle (MINOM) was founded, an organization that was eventually accepted by ICOM as affiliated organization[38].

The discussion about Mayrand’s proposal during the 1983 meeting and the creation of MINOM threatened the newly found stability of the committee (Sofka 1989: 70). The issue was not only the creation of a new working group. Much more was at stake, as André Desvallées explained later: ‘… the question was complicated by the problems of language, or even more of mentality, and the French found themselves supported by the French Canadians, the Belgians, the Spanish and more generally what one would call the “Latins”, and facing perhaps even against … I let you make the substraction. Is it a problem of civilization? Or a political problem? In any case, I believe that it is a problem of language. The Anglophones did not understand, or rather, misunderstood the Francophones …” [39]. Nevertheless, key persons of the new museology and ecomuseum movement, like André Desvallées and Mathilde Bellaigue, stayed loyal to ICOFOM where they held important positions (as vice-chairman and secretary respectively). Besides, many founding members of MINOM remained members of ICOFOM. Throughout the years new museology and ecomuseums kept a dominant position on the agenda of the committee. For example, all French authors contributing to the Buenos Aires 1986 symposium belonged to the new museology movement[40]. Special meetings on ecomuseums were organized in connection with the Leiden 1984 and Zagreb 1985 conferences.

Although new museology was often discussed within ICOFOM it was always considered as one possible approach rather than the main perspective. Each symposium was seen as an open forum, with a free exchange of ideas. Conclusions were never considered as final statements (Sofka 1989: 65)[41]. Besides matters concerning the aims and policy of the committee, ICOFOM never published ‘official’ statements, not even about the definition of museology. All contributions were taken seriously and were included in analyses and summaries. As chairman Sofka wrote: ‘The decisive contribution of the committee lies in its collecting function: it brings museum workers and museum researchers together, and by providing an international forum for discussion and a place for publication of ideas and opinions about museology, it leads to systematic studies and deepening museological questions’ (Sofka 1989: 65). His approach was much appreciated by the participants and certainly encouraged participation[42].


In August 1989 the number of ICOFOM members totalled 606, coming from 73 different countries[43]. At the same time the total number of ICOM members was 8583, distributed over 116 different countries[44]. The overall pattern of ICOFOM membership follows from ICOM membership. On the whole ICOFOM membership comprises 7 % of the ICOM members. Latin America as a whole far exceeds this figure, but some countries show an even stronger involvement.. While an average of 23 % of the Latin American ICOM members is member of ICOFOM, in Brazil 40 % is.

Africa 2% 4% 14%
Latin-America 7% 21% 21%
North America 16% 19% 8%
Arab States 1% 1% 9%
Asia 11% 7% 4%
East Europe 4% 3% 5%
West Europe 57% 45% 5%
Oceania 2% 1% 5%
Total 100% 100% 7%

Table 2. Regional distribution of ICOM and ICOFOM membership (1989) 

The membership profile shows a dominance of Europe and the so-called developed world within ICOM: about 61 % of the (active) membership is European, while on the whole 86 % belong to the developed world[45]. In view of the specific role of the (former) European socialist countries in the development of a theory of museology (see Chapters 4-8) it is useful to distinguish between the (former) socialist and the capitalist parts of the developed world. Following the traditional three-fold division of the world, ICOM counts 7072 members (82 %) from the so-called First World, 324 members (4 %) from the Second World, and 1187 (4 %) from the Third World[46]. The overall pattern of ICOM follows from ICOM membership with a few notable exceptions. The committee is on the whole less European based. “Only” 45 % of its active members comes from Europe. However, like ICOM, a majority of the members comes from the developed world (71 %).

The limited number of members from East Europe is mainly due to the limited admittance to the national ICOM committees because of control by the national governments and currency regulations (E.Zell, In many countries, especially in the Third World, national ICOM committees seem to apply their own set of criteria as to admittance (V.Sofka, To what extent these limitations influence the number of members cannot be estimated, but is not to be neglected.

ICOM membership grew from 6036 active members in 1984 to 8583 in 1989, a growth factor of 1.4[47]. Between 1984 en 1986 the recruitment of members attained a level heretofore unequalled. The “new generation” represents almost 40 % of the total membership. The evolution of ICOM’s individual membership has been stable between 1986 and 1989. During Spring 1989 a new influx of members could be welcomed[48]. No research has been done as to the motives of museum workers to become member of ICOM and especially for expressing their wish to be considered as member of ICOFOM. According to the rules of ICOM it is possible to join more than one international committee. Each ICOM member can, however, be registered as voting member by one committee only. The right to vote thus may reflect the member’s main interest. At the same time the voting members give shape to the core of the committee. On the whole 41 % of the ICOFOM members is voting member. The general geographical distribution of the voting members is remarkably similar to the membership in general. Within the voting community Europe takes half the votes.

  members voting member vm/m
Africa 4% 10(4%) 45%
Latin America 21% 51(21%) 41%
North America 19% 39(16%) 35%
Arab States 1% 4(2%) 67%
Asia 7% 20(8%) 50%
East Europe 3% 9(4%) 50%
West Europe 45% 111(45%) 41%
Oceania 1% 4(2%) 44%
First World 68% 160(65%) 39%
Second World 3% 9(4%) 50%
Third World 29% 79(32%) 45%
total 100% 248(100%) 41%

Table 3. Comparison of regional distribution of ICOM members and ICOFOM members (1989)

In view of the history of the committee it is useful to compare the membership profiles of 1983 and 1989. In December 1983 ICOFOM counted 113 members from 40 countries. Numerically the First World dominated in both 1983 and 1989. In Latin and North America a comparatively high growth factor is found. The increase of members from Africa and East Europe stayed behind. Throughout the years France remained one of the most important countries as to membership. The high number of members from Brazil and Argentina in 1989 may be influenced by the ICOM General Conference held in that part of the world (Buenos Aires 1986). 

  1983 1989 growth
Africa 7(6%) 22(4%) 3.1x
Latin America 13(11%) 125(21%) 9.6x
North America 15(13%) 113(19%) 7.5x
Arab States 1(1%) 6(1%) 6.0x
Asia 8(7%) 40(7%) 5.0x
East Europe 8(7%) 18(3%) 2.3x
West Europe 59(52%) 273(45%) 4.6x
Oceania 2(2%) 9(1%) 4.5x
Europe total 67(59%) 291(48%) 4.3x
First World 78(69%) 411(68%) 5.3x
Second World 8(7%) 18(3%) 2.3x
Third World 27(24%) 177(29%) 6.6x
total 113(100%) 606(100%) 4.2x

Table 4. Regional distribution of ICOFOM membership in 1983 as compared to 1989.


The policy of the ICOFOM board has always been to encourage as many people as possible to contribute to the symposia. The working method of the committee is based on the assumption that the world-wide interest in the symposium topics would be greater than the possibilities for ICOFOM members to travel. Therefore all members are encouraged to contribute to the discussions by writing, and to participate “in spirit” when physical participation is not possible. Writing presupposes an active involvement; being present at a meeting cannot always be described as a contribution to the development of the discipline (though it might be very instructive for the participant). The policy has proved to be a valid approach during the past period as is shown in table 5. While the number of contributors is rising, a larger number of them is unable to attend the meetings in person. During ICOM General Conferences (1983, 1986, 1989) there generally seems to be a larger number of authors present.

  number of authors number of authors
present at meeting
1983-1 21 16(76%)
1983-2 15 13(87%)
1984 22 13(59%)
1985 32 15(47%)
1986 48 24(50%)
1987 43 20(46%)
1988 49 20(41%)
1989 43 22(51%)

Table 5. Number of contributors present at the symposium to which they contributed in writing, 1983-1989.

During the 1977-1989 period 149 different museologists contributed to the committee’s symposia and MuWoP in writing. The 149 authors represented 39 different countries. Again a clear eurocentricity is reflected in the figures: more than half of the contributors is European. There is a clear dominance of western thinking: 60 % of the authors is from West Europe, North America, Israel, Australia and New Zealand. This dominance, however, is not as high as could be expected from the membership profile. The interest in the committee’s work from East European museologists is stronger than their ability to joint its membership (3 % membership, 15 % participation)., which is an interesting circumstance in view of the recent political developments in this part of the world. If a solution can be found for the financial problems, a growing number of East European members might be expected.

  membership 1983 participation 1978-1982 membership 1989 participation 1983-1989
Africa 6 0 4 5
Latin America 11 5 21 17
North America 13 20 19 17
Arab States 1 2 1 1
Asia 7 2 7 10
East Europe 7 34 3 13
West Europe 52 32 45 38
Oceania 2 5 1 3
First World 69 60 68 54
Second World 7 36 3 13
Third World 24 4 29 33

Table 6. Number of contributors as compared to membership (in %), 1977-1989.

When we compare membership profile and participation we see that the degree of involvement of museologists from Africa, Latin America and Asia has increased more than their membership. North American museologists seem to be less inclined to participate. The share of East European museologists in the activities of the committee dropped in proportion with the decrease in membership. It should, however, be noticed that the absolute number of authors did not decrease, but while the number of contributors from other parts of the world has increased, the number of East European authors has remained fairly stationary.

The share of museologists from Third World countries has increased quite suddenly in 1986 and had remained rather high ever since. The increase in 1986 is the result of the conference in Buenos Aires, which attracted new members and new participants. Although the majority of this group of new participants have become regular contributors to the committee’s symposia, participation remained restricted to two countries only: Argentina and Brazil. The 1988 symposium held in India, again attracted a group of new participants. This time only participants from the host country itself. The participation of some of these new contributors in 1989 might indicate a lasting involvement of Indian museologists in ICOFOM activities.

ICOFOM’s Long-term programme intends to provide a structure for continuity and a step-by-step development of museology as academic discipline. However, the ‘demographics’ of the committee clearly show some limiting conditions. From 1983 till 1989 the number of members grew from 113 to 606. ‘Only’ 46 % of the 1983 members were still member in 1989. In other words, 54 % of the members of 1983 left the committee in the following six years. The same phenomenon can be observed in participation. There is a growing number of contributors, but a lack of continuity. Usually about half the contributors are new, i.e. contributing for the first time, many of them being ‘one-time contributors’.  Apparently these participants were only interested in the theme, or were encouraged to write on the theme by the local organisers.

The average degree of participation, i.e. the number of symposia the author took part in, during the first period (1977-1982) was 1.6; the degree of participation during the second period (1983-1989) was 2.1. In the first period 66 % of the authors participated only once, in the second period 56 %. Only very few authors contributed to all symposia: only one in the first period (Razgon) and three in the second (Schreiner, Sofka and Stransky)[49]. At the end of the second period a new generation of regular contributors seems to announce itself. It is no coincidence that many of these new authors are from Latin America (Argentina and Brazil). This reflects the increased involvement of this continent in ICOFOM matters.

  museum studies programmes museums museum-related organizations government
Africa 1 4 1 2
Latin America 6 9 3 4
North America 6 12 1 0
Arab States 0 0 0 0
Asia 7 8 0 1
East Europe 8 9 4 2
West Europe 10 32 8 1
Oceania 2 2 0 0
total 40 76 17 10

Table 7. Professional background of contributors to ICOFOM symposia 1977-1989, at the time of their contribution.

Table 7 gives a rough indication of the professional backgrounds of the contributors. Those who were employed outside the museum field have not been included. On the whole they have made one contribution only, sometimes by special request. Close on half of the contributors worked in museums, one fourth was full-time of part-time engaged in museum studies programmes.

  female male female male
Africa 4 96 0 100
Latin America 74 26 73 27
North America 49 51 35 65
Arab States 17 83 0 100
Asia 30 70 21 79
East Europe 6 94 22 78
West Europe 51 49 29 71
Oceania 22 78 40 60
total 49 51 36 64

Table 8. Male-female ration of ICOFOM members and contributors to ICOFOM symposia, 1977-1989 (in %).

Roughly one third of the contributors was female, while about half of the membership is female. However, the male-female ration differs per continent. The profile of the membership of the committee follows the general pattern found in ICOM[50]. Latin America is characterized by a majority of women in the profession. The degree of their participation in ICOFOM symposia equals the share in membership. West Europe and North America have a balanced male-female ration in the membership. The discrepancy between membership and participation in these regions remains to be explained. There is, however, an interesting parallel between the share of women in the publishing activities of the committee and their participation in other activities. For example, one third of the board members during the 1977-1989 period is female. Also one third of the so-called nuclear group (see below) is female.

For only 30 % of the contributors one of the official conference languages was their native tongue (English 17 % + French 13 %). For 10 % of the contributors, coming from former colonies, English or French was their second language, or perhaps even the first. For 60 % of the authors the situation was different. They had their texts translated by professional translators (usually not familiar with museological terminology) or made the translation themselves. This caused criticism among native speakers, complaining about the quality of the texts (Burcaw 1983: 18; Hodge 1983: 59; De Varine 1986: 72). In accordance with the preference expressed by the majority of non-native-speakers English has been designated the leading language. This is in agreement with the language preferences within ICOM membership. In 1989 the language preferences of new members of ICOM were: 73 % English, 21 % French, 6 % Spanish. The position of Spanish as official language within ICOM has much been discussed[51]. In ICOFOM too the number of Spanish speaking members & contributors is growing and they seem to feel the need to publish in their own language[52]. From 1991 onwards a Spanish-Portugese edition of Museological News is published by the regional working group (ICOFOM-LAM).

ICOFOM’s nuclear family

It is difficult to define a criterion to find the most influential ICOFOM members. Board membership might be considered as one. The board of the committee plays an important role as ‘brain trust’. It is no coincidence that many of the board members belong to the most active participants. From a quantitative point of view the board does not reflect the membership. From the outset there has been a lack of balance. The most ‘dramatic’ difference between the composition of the board and that of the membership concerns East Europe. Three of the thirteen board members elected in 1986 were East European, while only 3 % of the membership belongs to that part of the world. The increase of Latin American membership is not reflected in the composition of the board. The 1986 board consisted of only one Latin American member. The majority of the board members (7) was West European. When we compare the composition of the four boards of the period 1977-1989 we see a gradual shift from a predominantly socialist and French speaking board to a West European and English speaking board.

Apart from board membership participation in ICOM activities can be used as criterion for involvement. A (rather arbitrary) system is developed in order to find listing-criteria:
  • participation in writing: number of symposia concerned (max. 8 points);
  • participation in the actual annual conference: number of conferences concerned (max. 7 points);
  • special duties during symposia, such as discussion leader or summarizer (2 points);
  • participation in special ICOFOM meetings (3 points)
  • board membership: chairman (3 points), office holder (2 points), member (1 point), re-election 1 point extra;
  • representation outside ICOFOM (1 point).
The maximum score is 25. On the basis of this calculation a group of twelve ICOFOM members can be indicated as ICOFOM’s nuclear group, i.e. the group of most active and most committed members in the period 1983-1989:

Sofka (Sweden) 25
Van Mensch (Netherlands) 23
Bellaigue (France) 22
Sola (Yugoslavia) 22
Spielbauer (USA) 20
Desvallées (France) 19
Schreiner (GDR) 19
Stransky (Czechoslovakia) 16
Carrillo (Spain) 15
Morral (Spain) 14
Grote (FRG) 13
Kaplan (USA) 12

With ten Europeans (seven from