International Museum Conference: Truth-telling in a post truth era

22 August 2023

Tackling the big questions facing museums worldwide.

Museum professionals from around the world will gather at the Chau Chak Wing Museum next week for a conference examining the, at times, controversial relationship between university museums and their collections.

The University Museums and Collections Conference (UMAC 2023) will bring 197 delegates from 30 countries together to discuss ‘truth telling’ in museums.  

The challenge of legacy collections and repatriation will be among topics discussed. Attendees include curators who have connected Indigenous students with museum artefacts which belonged to their forebears and created platforms to discuss the colonial systems that gave rise to the creation of many museums.

“Museums around the world are reckoning with their past,” said Michael Dagostino, the University of Sydney’s Director of Museums and Cultural Engagement. “We need to be brave, acknowledge what has happened and atone for past acts.

“The museum acquisition practices of earlier centuries don’t hold up to community standards. In an environment where culture should be fiercely debated, university museums must have robust discussions about how to engage students, researchers and the wider public to ensure their collections remain relevant and reflect contemporary values in higher education and broader society.”

The impact of war on Ukrainian museums, Western Australian collections in international museums and the role of choreography in museums are just a few of the sessions included in UMAC 2023’s extensive program

A pair of latex gloved hands handling a museum artefact.

The Chau Chak Wing Museum's object-based learning program is a UMAC Award finalist.

Three senior Indigenous scholars - Professor Jennifer Barrett, Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous (Academic) at the University of Sydney; Professor Gaye Sculthorpe from Deakin University; and Associate Professor Ali Baker from Flinders University - will deliver keynote addresses reflecting the conference’s theme.

"It is incumbent upon to acknowledge the role our university has played in the colonial project," she said. "Our cultural collections are testament to that history and therefore core to truth-telling."

University museums date back to 1683, when the Ashmolean Museum opened at the University of Oxford. The Nicholson Museum opened at the University of Sydney in 1860, the first university museum in Australia, after Sir Charles Nicholson donated his substantial collection of antiquities to the University.  

“University museums are distinct institutions,” said Mr Dagostino. “Their collections inform students and researchers. Here at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, we offer bespoke programs using museum objects to teach subjects ranging from archaeology to economics.  

“It’s exciting to bring our annual conference to Australia and experience the Chau Chak Wing Museum, one of the most interesting recent academic museum developments in the world,” said the UMAC President, Andrew Simpson.

“Museums are changing from being points of scientific and cultural authority to being networks of scientific and cultural agency, and academic museums often lead the way.”  

Coinciding with its role as host, the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s object-based learning program is a finalist for the annual UMAC Award, which celebrates innovation, creativity and excellence at university museums.

“We’re proud to be able to bring together people who are passionate about the role of museums in society to the new Chau Chak Wing Museum,” said Mr Dagostino.

Verity Leatherdale

Manager, Faculty Media and PR

Related articles