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The art-historical, cultural, ethnological, archaeological and design holdings of encyclopedic museums grant these collections a complex historical depth, and can be seen as a vocabulary of global society. Due to the targeted attacks on historic monuments, schools, and libraries in various war-torn regions of the world and the concomitant destruction of cultural heritage, encyclopedic museums have a particularly crucial responsibility to maintain their role as open archives of world cultures. Their compendium-like holdings allow such institutions to convincingly address the complex intellectual relationships connecting Europe and the world and to present these to a broad and international audience. These museums are obligated to contribute to the promotion of cultural exchange and to engage in self-criticism. For many years encyclopedic museums and the Kunstkammer or ‘cabinets of curiosity’ out of which they often evolved aimed to present a view of the world on a global scale, but also became models for the appropriation of objects on a global scale. In the 18th century, collections were more strictly divided into specialized public museums, in tandem with the rising importance of encyclopedic modes of thought during the Age of Enlightenment and concomitant attempts to create a structure and architecture of knowledge. Today the great encyclopedic museums are again faced with the task of critically examining the processes by which knowledge related to their collections was and is generated, the taxonomies under which the collections are organized, the contexts from which the objects in the collection originate and the conditions under which they entered the collection, the manner in which stories have grown up around the objects, and what view of the world displays of the objects present. Museum institutions create not only knowledge and culture, but also identities. Awareness of this role, and the dissemination of this awareness, become even more critical in periods of increasing nationalism and waning tolerance towards other cultures.
During the symposium, topics such as a ‘post-truth age’, ‘autonomy and freedom of thought’, ‘whose heritage?’ and ‘the museum as shelter’ will provide the subject for intense and controversial debate.