How Do We Define a Museum?


Museums can be hushed halls with musty smells and revered words of art or noisy centers where kids run hither and yon. They can house fossils and mummies or art made out of living insects. They can send curators around the globe to explore and collect. Museums can make money from ticket sales and membership fees or rely on government and foundation grants. They can be a place to learn about the past or a place to inspire our dreams of the future. They can be places that preserve and protect artifacts for all time or places where we share the joy of beauty and wisdom in all cultures. But how exactly do we define a museum?

The new definition is not perfect, but it provides a clear framework for thinking about museums and the work they do. The five principles that guide the definition are: that it be short and simple; that it distinguishes museums from other collecting institutions; that it be flexible enough to allow room for local interpretation and customs; that it identify the key functions of museums; and that it be consistent with a wide range of current museum ideologies.

The new wording of the definition is much simpler than previous versions, and focuses on what museums do: preserving the past, probing the present, and preparing for the future. It also identifies the tools that museums use to do their work: collecting, exhibiting and educating. And it names the people who put this work into practice: the staff, volunteers, and members of the public.

As with the previous definition, this one leaves the “how” of museum practice open, so that museums can choose what works best for them. What matters is that museums communicate their messages to the public, and that they use a variety of strategies to do so, including exhibitions, publications, websites, tours, lectures, etc.

Museums also need to find ways of raising funds to ensure their continued operation and to continue to purchase and display objects in their collections, especially those that are very rare or of great importance. The new definition acknowledges that museums must balance these financial needs with the requirement to maintain high standards of care and conservation for their object holdings.

The definition makes a point to differentiate museums from other collecting institutions by identifying them as not-for-profit. It also acknowledges that museums may earn some revenue from their operations through shop, restaurant and membership revenues as well as from donations to support their collection and programming. The new definition also takes into account broader societal trends and issues, such as environmental sustainability, cultural diversity, and decolonization, and seeks to include them in the work of museums. It’s important to remember that museums are part of a civic infrastructure, alongside libraries and hospitals, that are created by communities through their political systems to serve them. The new ICOM definition will help them do their work even better in the future.