The International Council of Museums Defines Museums


A museum is a place of wonder. It can have hushed halls with musty smells or noisy centers where children run hither and thither. It can house revered works of art or collections of living insects. It can send its curators around the world to explore and learn. It can have exhibits that make you weep and others that inspire. Some museums are devoted to a single work or subject (the Louvre, the Uffizi, and MOMA, for example), while others bring together masterpieces from across the globe. Whether you’re looking to see the oldest human remains in the world or a new piece of modern art, there’s probably a museum somewhere near you.

Museums have a complex history, and they’re a powerful force in our global culture. In fact, they’re so important that the International Council of Museums has a definition for them: “A museum is an institution dedicated to collecting and preserving primary tangible evidence of human and natural history and culture and making it available for study, education, and enjoyment.” The word museum comes from the Latin verb museo, meaning to protect. It was first used to describe a temple or shrine, and later, a building set apart for study and the arts. Denis Diderot envisioned a comprehensive system of national museums in his ninth volume of the Encyclopedie, published in 1765.

The museum’s role today is more expansive than it was in the past, and that’s why the new ICOM definition is so significant. It puts more emphasis on what museums do for their communities rather than the objects they collect. It also focuses on what kinds of diversity and inclusion they’re committed to supporting in their practices, collections, and programs.

ICOM’s new definition was voted on at its Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague and passed unanimously. It will be put into effect in 2022. It is based on extensive research and consultation with all ICOM members worldwide. During the first two rounds of consultation, ICOM Define received more than 300 proposals.

It’s an ambitious and wide-ranging definition, but one that should give the world a clearer picture of what a museum is. It’s a place that celebrates the past and looks toward the future, and it’s a place for everyone to experience and learn.

As a museum director, I’m proud of the way our field continues to expand and evolve. I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues around the world as we embrace this new vision of our shared heritage.

Emily Grassie is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent for The Field Museum and hosts the YouTube series The Brain Scoop. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyGrassi and Instagram.

Originally appeared on The Field Museum’s website. To stay up to date on The Field’s latest research, events, and news, sign up for our email newsletter.

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