The Definition of a Museum

Museums are diverse in size, location and purpose. They can be recreational facilities, scholarly venues or educational resources; they may promote civic pride or nationalism or they might transmit overtly ideological concepts. However, a basic commonality is that museums preserve and interpret some aspect of their society’s cultural consciousness.

While many of the different types of museums vary in how they do this, all share some common characteristics. They are usually not-for-profit organisations; they collect objects of historic, cultural or scientific value; they communicate those collections to the public through exhibitions and other means; and they provide education and research opportunities.

Museum professionals often use the term “museum” to refer to a building that houses or displays these collections, but this is only one type of museum. Increasingly museums are being established in other places, such as parks, buildings, historic sites and even ships. In this way they are overcoming the constraints of traditional museum buildings and moving to a more flexible model.

The problem is that this flexibility can create confusion when trying to define a museum. This article will attempt to clarify what makes a museum by exploring the fundamental aspects of museum work. It will also identify the most important differences between museum-like operations and non-museum-like operations. The discussion will then explore a new definition that is more flexible and responsive to current museological practice and the challenges of our changing world.

All museums share a number of core features that distinguish them from other organizations. These include the need to protect objects of heritage significance; a need to collect, store and conserve those objects; and a need to present them to the public in ways that help them understand the object’s importance and value.

In addition, all museums are open to the public for visiting and learning. Moreover, many museums have educational programs for students and the public to teach them about their collections and the history of the objects. These are all important parts of the museum experience and are necessary for making a museum an effective cultural institution in today’s complex world.

Most of the existing definitions focus on what museums are and what they do but fail to consider how they are managed. Consequently, they do not fully address the needs of many contemporary museums and the issues that they face. This paper will therefore develop a definition of a museum that addresses these problems by describing what museums do and how they manage themselves.

This definition is based on the MDPP’s desire that the new definition “should acknowledge and recognize with respect and consideration the vastly different world views, conditions and traditions under which museums work across the globe.” In other words it should be inclusive of the full spectrum of global museological practices. It also reflects the needs of museums to be able to make money through their shops, restaurants and membership as well as to raise funds for acquisitions and programming.