The New Definition of a Museum

Museums offer an opportunity to experience culture and history in a unique way, whether through their carefully curated collections or transcendent exhibitions. But while museums have a diverse range of purposes, they share an underlying goal: to connect people to the past and to each other. For many, museums are also a source of pride. And although some naysayers might find museums to be boring, there are plenty of places from Senegal to Japan that have mastered the art of engaging visitors with the past in ways that change their perspectives on society.

The word “museum” carries its origins in the ancient Greek form, mouseion, which was used to designate a place for philosophical discussion. But it was not until the 19th century that the idea of a public museum began to emerge. At this time, museums were largely the product of private collections. The most famous example is the Terracotta Army, which was discovered by farmers in 1974 and now has over 8,000 intricately-carved warriors guarding the tomb of China’s first emperor.

As the concept of the museum evolved, its role in society changed. For example, the Napoleonic wars encouraged the organization of museum collections around a nationalistic fervor. However, these efforts were sporadic and uncoordinated. In addition, a variety of providers-government at local and national levels, universities, societies, individuals, and companies-did not encourage consistent policies at a national level.

While these developments fueled the growth of the museum, they did not fully integrate the museums into society. A common challenge has been that museums have been slow to respond to changing social conditions. This is especially evident in Europe, where a diversity of providers (government at local and national levels, universities, associations, companies, and individuals) did not facilitate cohesive policy making at a national level.

In the United States, by contrast, a strong trend toward developing museums has been promoted by a growing interest in preserving and interpreting cultural heritage. For this reason, museums have often been viewed as a national priority and a source of civic pride.

The new definition of a museum, which was approved today at the ICOM Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague, includes references to inclusivity, accessibility, and sustainability for the first time. The definition was developed by a group of ICOM members who are part of the Standing Committee on the Museum Definition (Icom Define).

Although this article provides an overview of the evolution of the museum, it is only one aspect of a complex process. The Icom Define group has conducted a number of consultations with National Committees, International Committees, Regional Alliances and Affiliated Organisations, as well as other stakeholders. These richly varied responses provide important considerations that will inform the next phase of the project. To learn more about this process, please see the Icom Define webpage. The results of the consultation will be presented at a future meeting of the ICOM Council. The next step is to begin work on the final version of the Icom definition.