ICMAH ANNUAL CONFERENCE

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Museums and Difficult Heritage
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Helsinki City
Museums in and around Helsinki

Museums and Difficult Heritage

The definition of difficult heritage introduced by Sharon Macdonald (ICMAH Annual Conference 2007) may be used as a starting point for the conference: “The difficult heritage is concerned with histories and pasts that do not easily fit with self-identities of the groups of whose pasts or histories they are part. Instead of affirming positive self-images, they potentially disrupt them or may threaten to open up social differences and conflicts. Difficult heritage deals in unsettling histories rather than the kinds of heroic or progressive histories with which museums and heritage sites have more traditionally been associated.”

The subject of difficult heritage is relevant not only to museums focusing on the recent past, but also to all archaeological and historical museums, which may present problematic and controversial subjects. ICMAH and IAMH challenge museum professionals and researchers to consider the role, possibilities and limitations of museums in presenting difficult heritage.

What kind of subjects have archaeological and historical museums tackled in striving to bring difficult heritage to the fore? What are the social, political, cultural or historical themes to which museums can contribute in terms of topical discussion? Should museums be more active in bringing up controversial themes?

How will these challenges be reflected in practical museum work? In the end, how much does handling difficult subjects change the museum professional’s role as a conservator of cultural heritage? Can a museum use an exhibition to take a stand or should it retain an objective attitude and distance itself from the subject? How can museum professionals deal with difficult heritage without looking at the past in a tendency-oriented manner or from too narrow a perspective?

Have the position and significance of museum objects been changed by the addressing of difficult subjects? How should museum professionals regard the fact that artefacts in exhibitions are decreasing in number and are being replaced by other forms of presentation? Will archaeological and historical museums eventually end up like science museums, which turned into science centres once interactive equipment became more common?

How do museum visitors feel about exhibitions on such subjects? To what extent and in what ways should the number of visitors and the feedback received from visitor surveys influence the exhibition and collection policies of archaeological and historical museums? In other words, should museums offer the public only what it expects?