The Definition of a Museum


In this age of polarization and increasing tensions in our world, a visit to a museum can be a great way to understand the past and learn about a country’s history and culture. In Europe, general museums reflect the cultural and civic pride of a particular country. In North America and Australia, general museums often represent a culturally homogenous community and reflect the traditions of those living in the region. These institutions may develop programs to promote understanding among people from different backgrounds.

Some cities have turned to museums as a source of economic development. In post-industrial cities, museums are a welcome addition. There are numerous examples of museums fulfilling economic roles around the world. One such example is the Guggenheim Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain. The Basque regional government agreed to spend $100 million to build the museum, which was controversial because of its high price tag. Yet, despite the controversy surrounding the museum’s construction, the investment has paid off financially for Bilbao. In 2015, the museum welcomed 1.1 million visitors.

The word museum has classical origins. The word mouseion means “seat of the Muses,” and in Roman times, the word museum meant “place for philosophical discussion.” The great Museum of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I Soter in the 3rd century bce, was actually more of a prototype university with a famous library and college of scholars. In 15th-century Europe, the word museum was used to describe the collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. These terms meant “public good” and the collections in the museum could be explored and enjoyed for a fee.

While museums are buildings, they contain treasures and artifacts. Curators have a critical role in keeping these objects safe. Curators not only protect the objects in the museum, but also learn about them and share their knowledge with the public. It may be difficult for curators to understand the diversity of audiences, but curators can help museums adapt their programming to meet the needs of the public and provide an enjoyable environment for everyone. So, if you want to attract an audience that reflects a diversity of interests, a museum is the perfect place to start.

As a result, ICOM’s Standing Committee for the Definition of a Museum has developed a new methodology to consult with stakeholders. Taking into account the feedback received during consultation 1, the committees are moving toward a new phase of the process. The proposed schedule of the ICOM museum definition process will last about 18 months, from December 10, 2020, to early May 2022. The proposed timetable may change, however, based on the circumstances.

A committee for the creation of a universal definition for a museum consulted over 900 members of ICOM. They received 269 suggestions for the definition and met with a number of stakeholders in Europe. The committee submitted five proposals, with the final one being selected by the Council’s executive board. It was not well received in some countries and was voted down. The committee’s final proposal was 99 words long and contained two paragraphs. Although there are some objections to the definition, many museums have opted to follow it.