Vinos Sofka was a museologist and, from 1983 to 1989, the ICOM chairman who structured the International Committee for Museology, ICOFOM. He created the intellectual and structural base for the study of museological philosophy and for the museological phenomenon, allowing museology to become an international subject of study.
Sofka has achieved international outreach by systematically involving museum professionals and teachers in museology studies and museum practices on all continents and beyond political borders by proposing discussions to leading museology thinkers through annual symposia and publications.
Vinos Sofka was born on July 4th, 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the eldest of four children. His father, Vincenc Sofka, was an agricultural engineer and his mother, Ladislava Sofková, a highly-educated woman at her time, was a strong cultural influence for her children.
Sofka graduated in Brno in 1948, the year of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and received his “Matura” diploma (corresponding to A-levels in the United Kingdom, Baccalauréat in France). In 1950, while studying law at Charles University in Prague, he was accused of being a CIA spy and was arrested for two months. He received his Doctorate degree in Jurisprudence in 1952.
The communist government, the only employer in the field of law, denied Sofka a job as he had been accused of being part of the central reactionary anti-socialist cell at the University aiming to overthrow the regime.
Sofka found a job at the Municipal Administration Office as a construction worker and became a certified bricklayer in 1954. He worked on the reconstruction site of Brno Fair Grounds and soon became labor relations management coordinator. In 1956 he was hired by the Archaeological Institute of Sciences of Brno to oversee the digs of the Great Moravian Empire and kept working for the Institute when the digs were completed.
In 1963, despite his political position, Sofka took over the coordination of the project of the Great Moravian Empire, and the following year he became head of the Jan Evangelista Purknye University (today, Masaryk University), head of the Moravian Museum and head of the Management Department of the Archaeological Institute. He organized the celebration of the 1100th anniversary of Saints Cyril and Methodius’s arrival in Moravia, who gave a written form to the Slavonic language. The celebration was launched by UNESCO as part of its promotion of literacy programs and adopted by Czechoslovakia. For a communist and atheist country, the celebration of saints was a challenge, but UNESCO was held in such high esteem that the government could not refuse to implement an event that this international organization had put into its work program.
Several countries have requested the exposition of Great Moravia after the successful exhibition in Czechoslovakia. The first exposition took place in Germany (both East and West Berlin), then, Greece, Austria, Poland and Sweden. The exhibitions at these European countries were a major achievement, considering the fact that the project was from the Eastern bloc.
In August 1968, the USSR-led coalition (The Warsaw Pact) invaded Czechoslovakia and Sofka opted for exile by moving to Sweden with his wife, Jaroslava (who died in Sweden in 1983) and his daughters. In the following year, he began to work at the Museum of National Antiquities of Stockholm (currently the Museum of Swedish History).
In 1971, he became head of the museum’s economic planning and administration section, which two years later became the exhibition department (programming, economic planning, and administration). Sofka developed exhibitions of Swedish and foreign origins, taking over the management department of the museum in 1975 and, in 1981, the department of coordination and development.
POINTS OF VIEW ON MUSEOLOGY
The concept of Museology had evolved. Peter Van Mensch wrote: “It seems that the history of Museology can be described as an emancipation process involving the rupture of Museology as a subject of study and the profile of its own cognitive and methodological orientation.” In Stockholm, around 1969, Sofka became increasingly interested in Museology, which he called a “complex of philosophical and theoretical issues related to museums,” potentially making Museology a “scientific discipline.” This approach, at the time, was not well accepted.
As well as Zbynék Stránský, Sofka saw Museology as a science that studied a special relation of man to reality, expressed by the collection, preservation and documentation of this reality or of parts of it, thus disseminating its knowledge. For him, Museology was an autonomous academic discipline, with its own terminology, methods and systems, for which the museum was the facilitating vehicle.
In 1976, Sofka was invited to write an article about Museology for a practical manual of museum work: Museiteknik. It was mainly through his efforts that Museology was developed in Scandinavia. He received the Doctor Honoris Causa title in Philosophy by the University of Uppsala in 1991, for his work with international outreach and also for granting Sweden a prominent place in world culture.
For Sofka, Museology is the theoretical base for museum work, the thinking on which museum policy can be built. In its conception, the research on Museology would only be carried out if museum and heritage thinkers of all the cultures of the world could contribute for its development.
The thought of contemporary and compatriot Zbyněk Zbyslav Stránský was an influence and served as the base for Sofka in his efforts to build museology as a scientific discipline, initially in the context of Eastern Europe, and later expanded to other regions of the world. The understanding of man’s particular relationship with reality, expressed through the act of collecting, preserving and documenting this reality or its fragments, which in our times directly influenced the constitution and development of museums, was a common denominator between the two.
Sofka sought to combine museological thinking with museum practice, fostering discussions and bridges between academic thinkers and museum professionals, complementing this view of Stránský’s conception.
It is important to mention the influence of Jan Jelinek, founder and first president of ICOFOM, whose successor opened paths and new possibilities for the field of museology.
Vinos Sofka, a member of ICOFOM’s first generation of thinkers, directly and indirectly influenced the subsequent generation of members with fundamental importance in the history of museology, such as Peter van Mensch, from Netherlands, who became his successor in the institution’s chairmanship. Among the prominent members of this second generation, in addition to Mensch, are Ivo Maroévic and Tomislav Sola from Croatia, Bernard Deloche and Mathilde Bellaigue from France, Tereza Scheiner from Brazil and Nelly Decarolis from Argentina.
Sofka’s influence came in the form of a greater breadth in the discussions relevant to the theoretical and practical fields, and in the way in which ICOFOM guidelines were conducted, its objectives, its positioning and the format of its publications.
The Museology Committee of the International Council of Museums, known as ICOFOM, was the only international professional organization bringing together experts in the field of Museology. It was founded in Moscow in 1977 with Dr. Jan Jelínek, head of the Moravia Museum in Brno as the Chair. At the first ICOFOM meeting held in Poland in 1978, Sofka proposed a document on the committee’s aims and policy and a journal that would be an international forum for discussion about museology.
In 1980 and 1981, Sofka published the first two issues of the Museological Working Papers – MuWoP, both in English and French and produced in collaboration between ICOFOM and the National Museum of Antiquities in Stockholm. In 1982 in Paris, Sofka was appointed interim Chair of ICOFOM when Jelínek, ill, resigned from the position. The committee’s pre-printed publication, ICOFOM Study Series (ISS) and its newsletter, Museological News, were born as a base for the committee’s symposia in Paris in 1982 and in London in 1983 where Sofka was formally elected Chair of ICOFOM, a position that he held until 1989, (the maximum time allowed by ICOM for the position). In London, Sofka established the committee’s intentions, aims, policies and programs, turning ICOFOM into one of ICOM’s most successful International Committees.
Recognizing that Museology is interpreted differently in different parts of the world, ranging from theoretical-philosophical thinking to practical work in museums, Sofka sought to ensure that all points of view were respected and that the diversity of Museology definitions was part of the committee’s strength.
As editor of the first two issues of the ICOFOM journal, the Museological Working Papers / Documents de Travail Muséologiques in 1980 and 1981 and as editor of the first 18 volumes of ICOFOM Study Series, still the official journal of the committee, Vinos Sofka created a dynamic editorial policy. There were no restrictions on accepting all the articles received, in order to establish a benchmark of the different positions on world-wide museology. The texts had to be received weeks before the symposia so that the participants could read them and analysers could make syntheses.
From the meetings held around these issues, publications were made available to all members, working as a mainstay for the development of thought in the museological field. Sofka did not see ICOFOM as a solution to Museology issues, but as a way to study and analyze them.
OUTREACH OF ICOFOM
During the seven years of his chairmanship, Sofka skillfully directed publications and annual meetings that were the guiding principles of ICOFOM’s activities, including symposia on topics that explored Museology’s fundamentals, seminars on the current museums problems, lectures on ICOFOM interesting projects and studies about the museum’s situations in the symposium hosting-countries.
Over the years, Sofka has produced 18 volumes of ICOFOM Study Series and volumes 3 to 12 of the Museological News, which included key documents for committee organization and cultural policy reports in the countries where the symposium took place. During this work, Sofka had the important contribution of the American librarian Suzanne Nash, whom he met in 1979 while both worked for ICOM. Nash was one of the professionals who worked for the organization’s documentation center in Paris. They moved to Sweden together in 1986.
Suzanne Nash worked on the symposia organization, translating and editing publications for ICOFOM, becoming a member of the committee’s executive board in 2010, and one of the editors for ICOFOM publications, contributing greatly to their dissemination until 2013.
During the years 1987 and 1988, Sofka and Don MacMichael (ICOM Australia) worked to update the ICOM Statutes, which included decentralization and regionalization requirements. In 1989, at the ICOM General Conference in The Hague, Vinos Sofka and Peter van Mensch, back then ICOFOM’s Chair, introduced the creation of ICOFOM regional subcommittees in a three-year plan. The committee in Latin America was immediately constituted as ICOFOM-LAM led by Tereza Scheiner in Brazil and Nelly Decarolis in Argentina, and other committees were constituted in Europe and Asia such as ICOFOM SIB (Siberia) and ICOFOM ASPAC (Asia and Pacific).
THE UNESCO CHAIR
Vinos Sofka was an ICOM Executive Council member from 1989 to 1992 and Vice Chair from 1992 to 1995. He retired from Sweden’s History Museum of Stockholm in 1994. At the same year he was fundamental in the creation of the UNESCO Chair of Museology and World Heritage at Masaryk University in Brno, with initial funding from this international organization and ongoing support from the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Education. Sofka became the first holder of the chair in 1996, a position he held until 2002. He was one of the responsibles for the foundation of UNESCO Summer School in Museology in 1987.
FROM OPRESSION TO DEMOCRACY
At Masaryk University, Sofka developed the Transition Project, an ICOFOM working group that was included in UNESCO’s three-year program in 1995 as “Heritage, Museums and Museology for a social, cultural and environmental transition”. The purpose of the project was to use museums as a support center for people in need of overcoming the trauma from a transition of a totalitarian regime government to a democratic one.
“Museums as free cultural institutions at the service of society and Museology as the base of the theoretical-philosophical field face new situations and requirements. The museum is an inseparable part of culture, and in it, occupies a sphere of cultural and natural heritage. It is an institution with specific objectives and tasks, represented by the collection, conservation, documentation, research and presentation of a specific part of the cultural and natural heritage, for purposes of memory, entertainment, research and education”. (Sofka, 1991)
For Sofka, the memory of totalitarian regimes must be preserved, as well as the inheritance of suffering, despite the desire to eliminate it. Only by understanding its past we can migrate to other freer forms of society. Documenting and integrating stories and memories related to the totalitarian regime allows us to study and understand the process, turning negative experiences into tools for building a better future.
“I have called the attention of Heritage Professionals to the fact that totalitarian regimes are now recent history, the past to be preserved, documented, analyzed, and used creatively to help post totalitarian societies to get rid of the trauma of the past, to find the way to democracy, to the human rights and warn future generations about the permanent danger of the return of the old regimes”. (Sofka Wines, 2003)
The Transition Project, which became the movement “From Oppression to Democracy” in 2002, aroused widespread interest in Argentina, Brazil and Germany, among other post-totalitarian societies, and was taken for many parts of the former Soviet Union. In the same year, it has become one of ICOM’s priority projects. This initiative has propitiated the collaboration between people and institutions (including universities) that works with cultural and natural heritage to communicate to the public a realistic understanding of history and a renewed vision of the future. By Vinos Sofka’s work it is recognized that heritage and culture are important components of political, economic and social change.
Sofka retired from Masaryk University in Brno in 2002 and in 2007 he was appointed an honorary member of ICOM at the Council’s General Conference in Vienna. In the last days of 2013, his frail health demanded that he moved to a nursing home in Uppsala, Sweden, where he died on February 9, 2016.