Engaged Museums: Report of the 7th ASEMUS General Conference, Delhi


Accessibility in museums, emerging experiences in community and audience engagement, the role of regional museums in fostering local development, and the uses of technology in museums were some of the issues addressed at the 7th General Conference of the Asia-Europe Museum Network (ASEMUS), held in New Delhi, India, between 15 and 17 March 2017.

Entitled Engaged Museums: Technology, Access and New Audiences, the conference was hosted by the National Museum of India. It gathered over 20 speakers and approximately 70 participants from across Asia and Europe, including museum directors, curators, educators, artists, scholars and representatives of international organisations such as UNESCO and ICOM. Over the three days, the programme of the conference involved a set of debates and project presentations, two training workshops and visits to museums and cultural heritage sites in Delhi.

The theme chosen for the conference, Engaged Museums, was described by Kennie Ting, the Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum and Vice-Chair of ASEMUS, as a topic that concerns all museums, for three reasons: they now need to assume a more social role, engaging with the communities; audiences have also become more sophisticated and expect to be involved in how museums operate; and the digital shift requires museums to engage online. These three dimensions would lie at the core of subsequent discussions.

The social role of museums is one of the core themes of UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Protection and Promotion of Museums and Collections (2015), which was presented by Nao Hayashi, UNESCO’s Museum Programme Coordinator. This is also one of the central themes of the work of ICOM’s International Committee for Regional Museums (ICR), which was represented by its Chair, Dr. Irena Žmuc: ICR has recently addressed the role of museums in supporting communities in post-earthquake contexts, as well as museums’ engagement with migrants and asylum-seekers.

Regional museums play a particularly relevant role in enabling access to culture, as highlighted by the Director of the National Museum in Delhi, Dr. B. R. Mani. The Director of the Culture Department of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), Anupama Sekhar, also stressed that most museums operate at regional level and contribute to fostering a sense of place in their areas.

Several examples of how museums can contribute to fostering access were presented, including the Art Museum Riga Bourse’s building adaptation and its outreach programmes for people with disabilities, families and schools; the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Asian Traditional Textiles Museum’s educational programmes for children and young people; and AccessAbility’s proposals for establishing minimum accessibility standards in museums to cater in particularly for people with disabilities. Likewise, the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) presented its Archival and Museum Fellowships Programme, which enables curators to work with museums in order to conextualise and make their collections accessible to a range of audiences.

The active engagement of audiences in museums was another of the conference’s running threads. In one of the training workshops, Dr. Amareswar Galla (Executive Director, International Institute for the Inclusive Museum; and Curator, Amaravathi Ancient Town and Bapu Museum) suggested that contemporary museum curatorship involves engaging with the community – indeed, communities should ultimately co-create the curatorial concept, in a long-term learning process for everyone involved.

Throughout the conference, a set of examples served to illustrate this. Among them were the ‘community drives’ launched by the Indian Heritage Centre (Singapore), which have enabled it to collect artifacts and oral stories held by the local Indian community; the Sarawak State Museum’s community engagement programme, involving consultations with the diverse local communities, educational activities and donations of items; and the Chester Beatty Library’s Intercultural Learning Programme, which includes partnerships with several community organisations and ‘ambassadors’ and has led to the elaboration of a range of educational materials. The Delhi Citizens Memory Project, an initiative of the Centre for Community Knowledge at the Ambedkar University Delhi, which is documenting and presenting neighbourhood stories across the city and actively engaging Delhi inhabitants, was also presented.

The opportunities to strengthening engagement and dialogue between museums and audiences through the use of mobile and digital technologies were the third major theme of the conference. In one of the training workshops, Jordi Baltà Portolés (Website and Social Media Editor, ASEMUS) discussed 10 basic ideas and tips for using social media in museums, including the promotion of audiences’ creative practices, the work with influencers, and the use of data to monitor impacts and improve practices.

Among the examples presented in the course of the conference was the National Museum of Korea’s use of artificial intelligence to enable translation and communication with diverse audiences, overcoming intellectual and language barriers. ASEMUS’ own Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces (VCM), which includes over 2500 masterpieces from 138 museums, was also presented.

The conference’s final plenary session involved a conversation on future directions for ASEMUS. Among the issues that were raised were the possibility of strengthening ASEMUS’ training dimension, the promotion of intercultural dialogue and the review of ethical practices in museums.

Complementing this discussion, in the course of the conference several speakers referred to the importance of international museum cooperation and the significant role played by ASEMUS in this context, by sharing ideas, expertise and collections, building bridges, and addressing the asymmetries that exist between Asia and Europe in collections and knowledge. The Director of the Chester Beatty Library and Chair of ASEMUS, Fionnuala Croke, recalled that ‘our museums are stronger when we are better connected, more networked’ – and, furthermore, that ‘the more engaged we are internationally, the more respected we are at home’.

On Friday 17 March, participants of the conference visited some local heritage sites, including Humayun’s Tomb (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the Sanskriti Foundation’s Cultural Centre. When waving farewell, a different kind of engagement was on their agendas – the 8th ASEMUS General Conference, hosted by the Sarawak State Museum, will be held in Kuching, Sarawak, in November 2018.


Full report

A full report of the 7th ASEMUS General Conference is also available here.


All pictures above by Savyasachi Anju Prabir


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