Keynote Speech of Dr. Hans d’Orville at the Second Conference of the Silk Road International Museum Alliance
8 Sep 2017


Keynote Speech of Dr. Hans d'Orville


the Second Conference of the Silk Road International Museum Alliance


Xi'an, China

8 September 2017


Museums in the Belt and Road Initiative – Building Bridges for Understanding and Cooperation among Cultures


In the Joint Communique of the Leaders Roundtable of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, adopted on 15 May 2017, Leaders were mindful that the world economy is undergoing profound changes, presenting both opportunities and challenges. We are living in an era of opportunity, where countries continue to aspire for peace, development and cooperation. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals at its core provides a new blueprint for international cooperation.


Many connectivity approaches have been put forward: bilateral, triangular, regional and multilateral cooperation where countries place emphasis on eradicating poverty, creating jobs, promoting sustainable development, and advancing market-based industrial transformation and economic diversification.


The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (The Belt and Road Initiative) can enhance connectivity between Asia and Europe, which is also open to other regions such as Africa and South America.


The Leaders stand for enhancing international cooperation including the Belt and Road Initiative and various development strategies, by building closer collaboration partnerships. They reiterated their stand for strengthening physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity among all countries. This for sure includes museums.


Leaders acknowledged the natural and cultural diversity of the world and recognized that all cultures and civilizations can contribute to sustainable development. They encouraged the involvement of governments, international and regional organizations, the private sector, civil society and citizens in fostering and promoting friendship, mutual understanding and trust – also through museums.


They committed to promote people-to-people exchanges and bonds and to encourage dialogues among civilizations, cultural exchanges, promoting tourism and protecting the world's cultural and natural heritage.


They reiterated that promoting peace, mutually-beneficial cooperation, and honouring the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and international law are shared responsibilities.


Museums are more than places where objects are exhibited and conserved. Along with the dramatic rise in cultural tourism in recent decades, the number of museums around the world has increased from 22,000 in 1975 to 55,000 today.


Museums can play a leading role in bolstering the creative economy locally and regionally. Museums are also increasingly present in the social sphere, acting as platforms for debate and discussion, tackling complex societal issues and encouraging public participation. 


Countries should use museums’ potential to foster social cohesion, notably among local communities and disadvantaged groups.


During times of conflict in countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali, where museums have been threatened by looters in search of valuable objects or symbols of national identity. Since its inception, UNESCO has recognized museums as one of its most important partners for building peace in the minds of women and men. Today museums specialize in everything from human ingenuity and cultural expressions to natural heritage. They may be indoors, open-air, underwater and virtual, attracting and inspiring millions of visitors each day.


UNESCO has intervened to secure and rehabilitate museums. UNESCO also carries out capacity building for museum specialists in the conservation of collections and inventorying and documentation to contribute to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objects. 


Celebrated each May, this year's International Museum Day highlighted the essential role of museums as promoters of the free flow of ideas and knowledge, contributing to a more informed society.


As museum attendance continues to grow around the world, UNESCO is working to link their work with sustainable development and peacebuilding. Museums can not only boost local economies, they can serve as important spaces for cultural mediation and dialogue. Through the use of new technologies, museums play an essential role in democratizing access to culture. In recent years, museums have been targeted, looted and attacked for embodying these values of diversity, dialogue and openness.


Following the adoption of the 2015 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Protection and Promotion of Museums, their Diversity and their Role in Society, the Organization has been working with governments, local actors and museum professionals across the globe to support its implementation, particularly as relates to preservation, education, communication, economy and quality of life.


As part of these efforts, UNESCO established a High-Level Forum on Museums, which met for the first time in Shenzhen, China, from 10-12 November 2016 and resulted in the adoption of the Shenzhen Declaration on Museums and Collections, which stresses the importance of museums in reinforcing ethical, professional and technological standards, preserving heritage in times of peace and conflict, and increasing international cooperation.


The Shenzhen Declaration underscores the social, cultural, educational and economic roles of museums in contemporary societies, and their contribution in educating citizens across the globe for more a peaceful world and in achieving sustainable development goals. The Forum’s major topics included new museum sector trends and public policies, the protection of cultural property and collections, the ethical and technological standards for museums, how better to engage and benefit communities.


“Museums are cutting-edge laboratories of our shared humanity – to protect our heritage, to catalyse new creativity, to help us capture the complexity of our world,” declared Director-General Irina Bokova at the conclusion of the Forum on 12 November 2016.


In a message addressed to the participants, President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China, had declared:


“Museums are cultural palaces that preserve and carry forward human civilization. Museums are bridges that link our past to the present and future. Their contribution to promoting mutual learning of civilizations in the world is distinctive and remarkable. The Chinese museum sector has undertaken continuous development since the first museum was established in China more than a century ago. In recent years, Chinese museums of various types have made substantial progress in infrastructure construction, research on preservation of collections, providing free access to the public, serving the needs of the people and promoting international cultural exchanges. They are more than custodians and records keepers of Chinese history. They also witness and contribute to Chinese people's endeavours to realize the Chinese dream of rejuvenating the Chinese nation.


All this is equally true and valid for the museums in the Road and Belt region.


How can we bring back to life the diverse collections of museums and how can we increase the global audience's access to them so that they can be instrumental to preservation of cultural diversity, to increasing understanding among peoples of the world and to advancement of human civilization?


Liu Yandong, Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China, opened the High Level Forum and reaffirmed the many functions of museums in modern societies, stating ”the museum of today is not only an institute for collections, protection, research and display of cultural heritage, but also one for providing public cultural services and social education.” She recalled that China's 4,692 museums host over 200,000 educational activities every year, and noted that the vitality of museums today requires technical support.


Museums everywhere stand at the crossroads of several social challenges today, as a source of jobs and revenues at the heart of the creative economy, fostering a sense of belonging and social cohesion, and as key drivers of international cooperation. They are also on the frontline of the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property.


The Shenzhen Declaration calls on all stakeholders to enhance the role and capacities of museums in protecting cultural heritage, adopting ethical and technological standards, and developing cooperation at the international level.


The Declaration reaffirmed that museums are among the most important and prominent institutions for safeguarding our common heritage in its all forms – tangible and intangible, movable and immovable, terrestrial and underwater – and play an ever-increasing role in stimulating creativity and the development of the cultural and creative industries, thus contributing to material and spiritual well-being of humanity.


It noted the vital role of museums in fighting against illicit trafficking and safeguarding, conserving and promoting heritage, both in times of peace and conflict or natural disaster.


Museums play a fundamental role in promoting social cohesion, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue, and in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals.


Noting that under the effects of globalization and urbanization, market liberalization and mass tourism, together with the evolution of societies and their cultural norms, the role of museums has evolved considerably, with museums now facing new challenges and opportunities, such as:

  1. Continuously engage in the revitalisation of museums, so that the diversity of their collections and operational modalities can be adapted to contemporary missions, and so that their activities can continue to promote museums as sites for national and international dialogue;
  2. Ensure that fundamental functions of museums, as stated in the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation and in the ICOM codes of ethics, such as preservation, research, communication and education, are not compromised by economic concerns, but instead broadened to provide greater learning, enjoyment and exchange opportunities;
  3. Value the role of museums in stimulating contemporary cultural expressions and local cultural economies, and integrate existing and new museum projects into an inclusive cultural landscape;
  4. Reconfirm the role of museums as expert institutions and to respond to human needs, expanding their contribution to heritage protection and strengthening their engagement in networks;
  5. Reinforce the resources, means and capacities of museums, their personnel, and stakeholders in times of peace and notably to cope with emergency situations, such as natural disasters and armed conflicts;
  6. Increase museums’ capacities in preventive conservation and risk preparedness as overarching strategies of collections management;
  7. Recognise the importance of local and national, private and governmental stakeholders, as well as local communities, in heritage protection, and, through advocacy, outreach and education, enable them to play a key role in creating sustainable solutions to protecting heritage and museums;
  8. Build constructive relationships and continued dialogue with communities with special reference to indigenous communities, in order to ensure broader access to collections and related information and participation in collection care, interpretation and programme development, enhancing their connections to cultural landscapes;
  9. Encourage Member States to provide adequate mechanisms to allow free exchange of collections, exhibitions and expertise concerning conservation, restoration and research;
  10. Promote the educational role of museums by providing opportunities for debates on history and controversial and challenging social issues to build mutual understanding and peace;
  11. Promote the role of museums as conveyors of scientific knowledge and the ideas of natural heritage;
  12. Develop, where possible, cooperation projects to promote the sharing and transfer of knowledge and experiences, and to address shared, comparable and divergent histories through exhibitions, education and joint projects, in the spirit of co-learning and of building intellectual and social capital;
  13. Support museum institutions to play a wider role as mediators among diverse audiences and in cultural diplomacy, as well as drivers of economic revitalisation and stimulators of creativity through initiatives including education and cultural tourism;
  14. Encourage UNESCO to develop and implement programmes and projects, where appropriate, and in collaboration with the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and other relevant partners, which promote an inclusive and integrated vision of museums and collections, to support capacity building and to provide guidelines for best practices;
  15. Encourage UNESCO, in cooperation with ICOM, to explore the possibility of publishing a global museum report;


Museums are cultural institutions, dedicated to promoting public awareness of specific types and ages of art and culture, and to positioning itself as an important presence in the local and national cultural scene. 


People visit museums and other cultural institutions or attend performing arts events for a variety of reasons.  Some want to fulfil personal interests. Some want learning experiences for their children, or a nice day out with family or friends.  Some seek greater connection with their heritage, their culture, or their community. And for some, it’s entertainment combined with all of the above.


We all need to advocate for museums as significant economic engines, stewards and trustees of important collections, community connectors and education providers. But museums do so much more. Museums serve teachers, students of all ages and play a key role in supporting literacy. They reach underserved populations in meaningful ways. Museums help create vital communities in which to live and work. They spur travel and tourism that feed the economy. As such, museums are a wise investment in a community's infrastructure.


With its cultural treasures, and the enrichment programs it offers, museums seek to be at the forefront of cultural activity, and initiate dialogue and collaboration between different streams of a multi-faceted society. To achieve these goals, museums strive for exhibitions that provide a meaningful, multi-disciplinary experience, work to develop educational initiatives, and host a range of cultural events.


The paramount motive is to create an ambience that encourages tolerance, dialogue and mutual respect, and an environment that stimulates artistic creativity.


Museums are above all bridges of cultural understanding. They teach cross-cultural understanding through an interactive presentation of themes and rituals from around the world.


Each of us grew up in a culture that influences what and how we learn. For humans, the accumulated knowledge of a culture is mostly passed down by use of symbolic communication, i.e., language.


We can best understand the final assumption about culture, that it is adaptive, by talking about a category of Chinese objects. Scholars have referred to them as “objects of the Emperor's study.” From very early times, the Chinese people have had great respect for literacy and writing. Their material culture reflected this interest with a profusion of inkstones, brush holders, writing instruments, and desk accessories. The production of these exquisite objects, crafted in jade, ivory, and ceramic, reached a culmination in the late Ming (1550-1644).


Culture is also a bridge to development. It fosters creativity, cultural industries and cultural heritage in all its forms as powerful and unique tools conducive to job-creation, social cohesion and mutual understanding, with an aim to create an ideal framework for improved regional and international cooperation and peace-building.


A project Heritage and Dialogue” has been initiated by UNESCO to learn from the past with a view to promoting dialogue for reconciliation and intercultural understanding in South East Europe and beyond. It is a flexible articulation of traits and features, a multinational puzzle where new significance is assigned to concepts such as ‘territory’, ‘heritage’, ‘identity’, ‘culture’ and ‘museum’. This prompts the need to examine the ways by which culture and citizenship develop, and to better understand the interfaces between the global and the local, the public and the private, the individual and the common spheres. Ethics become especially important in today's context of rapid social and behavioural change, where the recognition and building of identities depends on the capacity of networking and accepting difference.


In such an environment, it is necessary to build links and bridges that facilitate the encounter between individuals and between social groups. links may be more or less ephemeral, but bridges are usually solid structures that extend over the abyss, creating new pathways that enable connection, opening up to the unknown, and simultaneously putting what is known within better reach. They allow us to meet others on their own ground and offer an alternative space for others to meet us. To build a bridge, it is necessary to have a certain compatibility of levels that will enable the building of its pillars. It is thus important to perceive other cultures in difference, not above or below our own culture, but horizontally, in the same level, making it possible to fix pillars that will support a solid structure for cultural encounter in between spaces.


This is the beautiful symbolism of museums: mediation. Mediation allows encounter, promotes interfaces and facilitates flux and interactions among the most diverse relational traits.


The main goal of ICOM, reflected in its Statutes, Code of Ethics and Strategic Plan is precisely to enhance the role of museums as powerful tools for a global dialogue that is transparent, and which must include the intercultural understanding of human rights, and bio-environmental and cultural difference.


ICOM's theme Museums for Social Harmony reminds us that a harmonious global society is not a society without problems, but a global society where the different human groups work together to enable a positive approach to the total environment; and where differences must be addressed with tolerance, mutual understanding and respect.


Museums will work towards social harmony by preserving, documenting and presenting material and immaterial heritage in a way that stimulates dialogue. It will acknowledge the importance of heritage for source communities and the fact that cultural diversity supports the development of strategies for the protection and promotion of heritage, by addressing, in a creative way, the challenge of preserving cultural identity while promoting cultural diversity.


Is the “digital divide” a phenomenon for museums? The lack of internet access for many people used to mean missing out on all that cultural heritage had to offer online. These days we may no longer worry whether our audiences are regularly connected to the internet, but we do make attempts to check whether our social media presence is reaching the right people. We also worry about how best to make meaningful experiences for people whose mobile devices are part of their everyday lives.


We must focus on the multiple ways in which digital technology and smart thinking is overcoming gaps between museums, their content and audiences.


Massive open online courses (MOOCS) and other digital learning environments have also made education more accessible, while at the same time moving it out of the classroom. Partnerships between MOOCS and museums can put the collections and knowledge of the latter into engaging formats for learners.


As digital projects become increasingly a core element of museums’ strategy, organisations face the challenge of bridging the gap between what they know how to do with technology and their aspirations for using it to enhance audience engagement with collections.


We must find new ways of bridging the many gaps of the digital divide. We need to build a web: a web of connections that brings together museums, partners and audiences to deliver inspiring experiences in the places where they're wanted.