‘Museums should be independent from political meddling’

By Korea Herald

Open discussion and panel key to contemporary history museum’s independence, says museum council head

  • Published : Nov 26, 2012 - 19:57
  • Updated : Nov 27, 2012 - 20:05
A museum is more than a warehouse of antiques and should be independent from political, business and other interference, according to the leader of an international body of museums.

Hans Martin Hinz, the president of the International Council of Museums, called for open and public discussion in setting the direction of museums and exhibitions in order to guarantee transparent and respected education.

“Parties continue to see contemporary history as a political instrument whose power is not to be underestimated. From the viewpoint of the museums, however, only the principle of academic and scientific freedom can be valid,” Hinz told The Korea Herald on Friday. 
Hans-Martin Hinz, president of International Council of Museums, speaks to The Korea Herald on Friday at the Press Center in downtown Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

The interview was held during the International Symposium on Contemporary History and Museum, held to mark the establishment of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary history, which had been scheduled to open last Thursday but has been postponed indefinitely. The contemporary museum, aimed at showing the foundation, present and future of the Republic of Korea, has been subject to criticism from civic activists for allegedly downplaying human rights abuses at industrial sites, the pro-democracy movement and other aspects of the country’s history in favor of the economic development the nation has achieved.

Hinz, who has been a member of the management team at the German Historical Museum in Berlin for the past 10 years, gave a keynote speech about his experience in opening a museum.

Hinz said he was aware of the controversies here and that it was natural for a government, politicians and others to want to meddle with the exhibition and the organization of the museum.

“It has been a trend in the European states in the early 20th century to establish museums to promote the nation and bring up unity among people, make them proud to belong to the nation by presenting their history as the ‘Golden Age,’” he said.

He admitted that when it comes to contemporary history, where controversies and all relevant people remain, the pressure will be greater.

The ICOM president took his case and said that the organizers of the museum establish a body of noted historians and museum specialists as well as others to come up with ideas ― independent of any political influence ― and hold public hearings and discussions to balance the view in the most “open” manner.

The museum expert advised that international perspectives of history are also important.

“The variety of historical interpretations allows the visitor to recognize the way other people think and present their arguments.

“When history is the result of a cognitive and emotional debate, it is reflected in a higher level of abstraction, thus creating understanding for a different historical and cultural experience. This appears to be decidedly necessary in the present-day process of internationalization and globalization,” he added.

Hinz stressed that contemporary museums should not try to explain the past from the perspective of the losers or winners of history but take the spirit of reconciliation into account by means of education, the provision of different viewpoints of history and empathy for the victims.

“It is not an easy task for the museums to carry forward the idea of reconciliation, because wounds heal very slowly and certain topics remain taboo for decades. But these are challenges which museums of contemporary history should face, which is in fact what they do,” he said.

“The German government decided to establish the national museum of history in 1985 but it took over a decade to carve out the details. It takes time and needs a lot of effort,” he said.

By Bae Ji-sook (