The New Definition of a Museum

Museums can be hushed halls with musty smells or noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. They can contain revered words of art or collections of living insects. They can be found in city centers or rural areas and be owned by a government, university, church or private foundation. They can be staffed with professional curators or by volunteers. They can be free or have a fee.

Whether they serve as a repository of treasured objects, or as a catalyst for civic pride and nationalistic fervor, museums reveal a remarkable diversity in form, content and even purpose. Yet, despite such wide variation, museums share a common goal: the preservation and interpretation of some material aspect of humanity’s cultural consciousness.

In order to understand the nature of this goal and how it varies over time, it is necessary to consider a definition of a museum. The word museum derives from the Greek museion and Latin museeum, both of which refer to places for the study of culture or history. The first recorded use of the term in this sense was by Ptolemy I Soter in the 3rd century bce to describe his library and college of scholars in Alexandria, Egypt.

Museums have been founded for a variety of reasons, including to act as recreational facilities; scholarly or educational resources; to promote tourism in their area; to transmit overtly ideological concepts; or to serve as repositories for valuable and unique items. In addition, museums have also been established to provide a focal point for a particular region’s history; to encourage civic pride and nationalism; to contribute to the economic development of their communities; or to serve as a monument or memorial to an individual or group.

One of the most important aspects of the new definition is that it identifies museums as being non-profit. This allows museums to seek income through gift shops, restaurants and membership fees while still remaining distinct from commercial, for profit businesses.

Another vital feature is that the new definition does not impose any restrictions on museum content. The only content restrictions that are imposed are those self imposed by the founding members of a museum in their by laws and charters when they set up the institution. This allows museums to stay true to the lofty goals set out by their founders and not to drift too far afield for fear of public censure.

Finally, the new definition recognizes that museums need to be connected to their communities. This enables them to engage with their visitors and to become an active part of the community, rather than being a place that keeps its distance from society and merely collects objects in isolation. Hopefully, this new definition will open the doors to many more museums and help to create a world where they can thrive. To learn more about the museum definition, visit Icom’s website. This article was originally published in Museum International.