As you might remember, in 2010 Medical Museion received the Dibner Award for excellence in museum exhibits in the history of technology for the temporary exhibition Split + Splice – Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine. The exhibition is unfortunately no longer on show – all that is left is the container wall in our ticket sales area – but that doesn’t stop it from having an afterlife.
In September 2011 I represented the museum and the exhibition at the “Best in Heritage” conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was celebrating its 10 year anniversary.
The “Best in Heritage” initiative derives from the Croatian museologist Tomislav Sola, who is still in charge of the conference and the driving force behind it. The past couple of years the main partners have been European Museum Forum and Europa Nostra. The idea behind the conference was – as Tomislav Sola told us in his keynote speech on the opening night – to make a red carpet-event for museums all over the world. Every year more than 3000 prizes and awards are given to museums, and the idea was to celebrate the excellence that gives rise to these prizes, and create a forum where those involved could meet and exchange experiences on what makes a good museum. Knowing that there are more than 3000 prizes to pick from, it was a great honor to be selected, and to be invited to join the Best in Heritage Club of Excellence along with the 120 other museums that have been presented at the conference so far.
I presented our award-winning exhibition, and tried to show how it relates to the ongoing transformation of our institution from a traditional Medical History Museum to Medical Museion. The conference is very well documented on the webpage, and all talks are now accessible on YouTube, including mine (I apologise for not looking into the camera, and in case anybody is wondering, I am getting a haircut!).
Coming home from the conference I tried to reflect a bit on what could be said about the selected museums and the qualities that made them “excellent”. I think it was significant that many of the presented awards were targeted at whole museum projects: new architecture and new identity is often rewarded. Another significant theme raised by many of the talks was how to argue for the relevance of being a museum in the world today. This seems to be a challenge for many museums – the selected institutions at Best of Heritage were the ones with a clear answer: they knew why they were in the world and they had a vision that went deeper than “just because we have an amazing collection”.
The conference ended with an official ceremony and a prize for the best presentation was given to Dr. Christian Fiala from The Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna. I agree that it was one of the most interesting talks and a well-deserved prize. The museum was founded by Dr. Fiala himself because he felt that Vienna needed a museum about this very serious topic. He could have chosen to make a film or a book, but he decided instead to create an exhibition based on a collection – which he aquired him self and which he now runs almost entirely by himself. I think one reason this museum was so appealing to the audience was because it is an example of a 1st generation museum founded on a perceived need for exactly what a museum could provide. In a world where many museums worldwide are struggling to find reasons-to-be that seem relevant to contemporary human beings, we just love to hear a story about a necessary museum. The museum is not equipped with lots of new fancy media – the exhibition space looks nice but fairly traditional, dare I say slightly boring. But the artifacts and the stories told were so appealing and relevant that there was no doubt that all the conference participants would be buying a ticket next time they visit Vienna. No way am I going to miss seeing a museum that is put into the world exactly because a museum with actual objects is the best way to communicate about a highly relevant topic. Now that is excellence in museums!