60th Annual Conference of the Estonian National Museum
5.-7. May 2020 in Tartu, Estonia (cancelled)

Organiser: Estonian National Museum
Keynotes: Jette Sandahl, Nancy Proctor

Call for Papers

A good museum is one which I come out feeling better than when I went in.

                        Kenneth Hudson

This quote from Kenneth Hudson sets up a discussion on the relevance of museums in the context of museum audiences, approaching museums as means of communication. A good museum is primarily one which provides good service to its visitors, interpreting widely the usefulness of a museum for the community. The number of excellent museums is increasing. Yet across Europe, different studies indicate that the numbers of cultural and arts audiences are dropping, despite innovative approaches to cultural services and continuous professionalisation of cultural organisations. Are cultural institutions still relevant?

Apprehending its responsibility as the recipient of the Kenneth Hudson award (EMYA, 2018), the Estonian National Museum dedicates its 60th annual conference to the relevance of contemporary museums, looking for the formula to the ‘good museum’, delivering exceptional quality to the public.

The ENM received the award for its complete renewal of the museum both in terms of facilities and content. The museum deals with complex and controversial histories in order to create a cultural dialogue that brings the past together with the future. With the museum’s renewal, we set out on a path that engages different people and opinions and makes history multivocal. As the jury put it, the ENM’s dialogical approach to everyday life and oral histories has renewed the meaning of the national museum.

The approach for museum renewal at the Estonian National Museum was set in a particular societal context and with particular expectations. We would like conference speakers to contribute to this discussion, focusing attention on the particular contexts in which contemporary museums operate. What are the key issues in retaining relevance, and why? We are open to different approaches as well as contributions that are original in their agenda-setting.

The relevance of the museum has undergone a strong shift towards the economic imperative: measuring audience figures and assessing quality of the service, using integration of business and management models in interpreting and communicating impact. Although these approaches can be helpful for evaluating organisational goals and the position in the market of cultural services, they alone are insufficient in understanding the values and giving meaning to the museum.

What is needed is an exploration and a valuing of what culture actually does and how it affects the contemporary public sphere. The cultural dimension plays a fundamental role in the process of creating quality in different ways, not only in the framework of economics. The artful, experimental, people-centred, inspirational and intellectually honest museum makes people feel welcome and has the potential for immense social and cultural value.

The social relevance of the museum is intertwined with public trust. They are among the most trusted institutions, addressing important issues of the current era.

Access to, and the transparency of, the organisation are also relevant: public trust is essentially about providing access. Relevance is a basic quality of audience development and relationship building, present in all core museum functions. A number of other significant aspects contributing to the relevance and quality of the museum, which we see as worth discussing on the occasion of the 60th annual conference, are:

  • Museums are perceived as spaces where one can spend leisurely and educational time, but are they also expected to be public and civic spaces, meeting places for people of all ages?
  • Is it more important that museums tackle burning social issues and ethical questions, or are they more relevant as places that first and foremost promoting the well-being of their audiences?
  • How should museums best serve both those who want museums to take a stand for social issues, and those who are perhaps uncomfortable about being confronted with sensitive or political subjects?
  • Should museums take some risks in order to perpetuate the myth that the knowledge they present is objective? What is the status of scientific knowledge production at museums and does this knowledge contribute to the relevance of the museum?
  • In order to remain relevant, do collections need more openness and collective contributions, or should they be thoroughly framed and secured by the established boundaries of scientific disciplines to increase the value and potential of knowledge protection?
  • Should museums have an environmental conscience and a commitment to sustainability?
  • What kinds of approach have you applied in your museum practice to finding relevance? How do you know whether you have been successful or have failed? How do you find out what is missing?
  • Is there a difference between success and relevance?

We welcome paper proposal from both museum professionals and academic researchers.

The conference language is English.  

Please submit your abstract of 300 words for a 20‐minute paper, along with a short CV, by November 20, 2019 to:


The conference fee covers attendance at all sessions, lunches and coffee/tea breaks during the conference, the welcome reception, and conference materials. 

The date and venue of the conference is May 5-7 2020, at the Estonian National Museum, Tartu, Estonia.

Notification of acceptance: December 3, 2019

Deadline for registration and conference fee payment: March 30, 2020 (Early bird – 1.03.2020)


We expect to publish an edited collection based on a selection of the papers presented at the conference.


Conference Committee:

Dr. Pille Runnel, Estonian National Museum

Agnes Aljas, Estonian National Museum