Two ICOFOM Giants

ICOFOM has lost two giants in the space of a little less than a month. On January 21, 2016 Zbynēk Stránský died; on February 9 he was followed by Vinos Sofka who also entered the field of memories. These were two of the most important people our committee has known. Many of us met and appreciated them, two giants of museology who probably gave much of their lives in the service of this discipline. They believed in the need for a better understanding of the specific relationship between people and reality, which in our times influenced the constitution and development of museums. Museology owes much to their labours.  We are saddened and, at the same time, recognize their major contributions.  We hope to prove ourselves worthy of their legacy.

Zbynēk Z. Stránský was one of the key figures in the world of museology, and his name is closely linked to the rise of museology as an academic discipline. Born in 1926 in the Czech Republic, he started working for the Moravian Museum in Brno in 1962, and subsequently, at Purkyně University (now Mazaryk University) in Brno, where he spent most of his professional career. Notably he was the one who, at the initiative of Jan Jelinek, ICOM President and Director of the Anthropos Museum in Brno, established a museology department at Purkyně University. The influence of museology from Brno was substantial. Stránský counts among the first members of the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM), established in 1977, becoming one of its most influential members. The international reputation of Brno increased even more thanks to the 1987 opening of an International Summer School of Museology, organized in conjunction with UNESCO. The school attracted museologists from around the world.

The role played by Zbynēk Z. Stránský in the development of museology was considerable, as much of his activity was focused on integrating this discipline into the academic system – and thus, in the prevailing context of Eastern European countries at the time, on giving museology a scientific status. From this perspective, his museological thought deepened into a “science in training”, whose object could only be the museum itself – an outdated historical phenomenon, but with a specific human attitude towards reality leading to the creation of different forms of institutions over the centuries. Throughout his career, Stránský focused his efforts on defining a large number of concepts – notably musealisation and museality – enabling a better understanding of the highly specific character of the museum as a means for people to approach reality. Thanks to ICOFOM and his teaching, as well as his numerous articles, he influenced generations of museologists, mostly from Eastern Europe, but also from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, France, and many Latin American countries. A colloquium was held recently (November 2015) at the University of Rio de Janeiro to honour his work.

Vinos Sofka was for many members of ICOFOM  a museological father or grandfather figure. He was one of those people who, on the one hand, one is proud to have known and who, on the other hand, one sincerely admires for his humane qualities. These significant qualities come to mind, as do his extraordinary organizational and rational competencies. Without a doubt ICOFOM underwent an epic transformation when he succeeded Jan Jelinek as president.  We cannot image what this committee would have been like without his presidency, which ran from 1982 to 1989, a period at once audacious, dynamic and intense. Audacious, because he created, in the early 1980s, a particular  approach to unite the sometimes antagonistic views of museology as practiced in eastern countries with those presented in the west. Dynamic and intense because Vinos Sofka succeeded in moulding a synthesis.  He was at once demanding and very generous. To him we owe ICOFOM’s publications: Museological Working Papers and then the ICOFOM Study Series. Man of consensus, he developed a methodology that aimed to reconcile the different ways of thinking about world museums and museology. This involved understanding, discussing and working towards synthesis.

Born in the Czech Republic in 1929, (previously Czechoslovakia) he worked in Brno as of 1956, where he was noticed by Jan Jelinek (Director of ICOM and himself a Czech) who suggested that he direct a school of museology that he wanted to organize in Brno. After the failure of the Prague Spring of 1968, Sofka went into exile in Sweden, where he pursued a museum career. (He was named Docteur Honoris Causa by the University of Uppsala in 1991.) Founding member of ICOFOM, he played a decisive role in the development of the committee. Shortly after the fall of communism, he developed a program using heritage to help understand and calm tensions (From oppression to democracy), a concept that was approved by UNESCO. He was named honorary member of ICOM in 2007. Along with Suzanne Nash, whom he met at ICOM, where she was one of the key workers in the documentation centre, they formed a couple united and entirely dedicated to museology. Until he was a very old man, he attended all committee meetings, developing a considerable following among the very youngest.

All the members of the the committee who knew these two giants remember these remarkable men. Their writings and their activities endure. It is in seeking to develop museology that we will best honour them.

François Mairesse