Cutting-Edge Laboratories of Shared Humanity
Today, museums are not only repositories for objects, but centers of knowledge exchange and social connection. Through the soft power of cultural diplomacy, museums become spaces to foster awareness of our shared history and transmit common values. These ideas resonated deeply during my experience as director-general of UNESCO.
In the 1960s, UNESCO launched the pioneering “Imaginary Museum” project to increase global access to art through reproduction of the world’s most famous paintings. UNESCO then adopted its first recommendation on museums, seeking to make them accessible to everyone by working closely with the International Council of Museums (ICOM), also created by UNESCO. But so much has changed since then.
UNESCO has stayed engaged not only by supporting the ICOM, but also by investing in major intercultural projects in which museums have played a prominent role.
Considering the Silk Road’s enduring legacy of connecting civilizations throughout history, the UNESCO Silk Roads Programme, launched in 1988, continues to revive and expand these historic networks in a digital space, bringing people together in an ongoing dialogue and fostering a mutual understanding of diverse and often interrelated cultures along these routes.
The Programme has a very rich legacy of movable heritage displayed in museums along the lengths of these routes. Since 2017, these museums have been presented and promoted by an online platform, connecting the historic cultural legacy of the Silk Road around the world—from Xi’an to Venice and all the way through Baghdad, Samarkand, the Balkans, and other places.
For millennia, the wondrous story of the Silk Road has been one of encounters between people, cultures, religions, and knowledge. These encounters have shaped civilization over the ages, catalyzing inventions and fertilizing intellectual scholarship. They gave birth to literary and scientific treasures and to traditions and artistic practices that have been passed across generations.
And all the glorious stories of human encounters can be found in museums. Generally, they are places where people meet to share ideas, innovate and learn more about their own history and culture, as well as those of other histories and cultures. They are places where people come together as one single community, showcasing the wealth of diversity. They are places to wonder, to learn about the past, and to invent the future.
I see museums as cutting-edge laboratories of our shared humanity helping to protect our heritage, catalyze new creativity, find words and images to capture the complexity of our world, and to foster understanding of others. I firmly believe in the power of museums to rejuvenate urban policies, deepen social inclusion, create jobs, foster a sense of belonging, make the most of cultural heritage for all, and contribute to mutual understanding in a complex world.
This is the spirit of UNESCO’s Recommendation Concerning the Protection and Promotion of Museums and Collections, adopted in November 2015. It seeks to promote the role of museums in fostering ideals of tolerance and mutual understanding. The recommendation recognized that “the preservation, study, and transmission of cultural and natural, tangible, and intangible heritage, in its movable and immovable conditions, are of great importance for all societies, for intercultural dialogue among peoples, for social cohesion, and for sustainable development.”
All these ideas were very well captured at UNESCO’s High-Level Forum on Museums, held in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, from November 10 to 12, 2016, following the adoption of the recommendation. I had the privilege of participating in it.
I believe these words have not aged a day. At the heart of our cities, museums are much more than cultural spaces to display collections. They are hubs of constant dialogue within and among countries and bastions of knowledge about the incredible cultural diversity of humanity.
The author served two terms as the director-general of UNESCO from 2009 to 2017.