The New ICOM Definition of a Museum


A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of objects of artistic, cultural, historical or scientific importance and makes them available to the public. The term originates from the Greek word mouseion, a place dedicated to the Muses and in ancient times also denoted a philosophical institution. There are many different types of museums around the world, ranging from very large collections in major cities to smaller local museums focusing on a specific subject area. Some examples include fine arts, applied art and craft, archaeology, anthropology and ethnology, history, cultural history, military history, science and technology, children’s museums, natural history, numismatics, botanical or zoological gardens and philately.

Throughout the history of humankind, museums have been important institutions for transmitting knowledge. Today, they continue to play an essential role as keepers of the past, but with an added responsibility of bringing that history to the future by actively engaging people in the process of understanding the complexity of the world we live in and our place in it.

This is a particularly challenging task because museums are not necessarily designed for the purpose of communicating with diverse audiences and do not always have the resources to do so. Moreover, the nature of their mission to preserve and interpret primary tangible evidence can sometimes lead them to make assumptions about the meaning and relevance of their own work.

As the new definition states, “Museums are not-for-profit, permanent institutions in the service of society that research, collect, conserve, interpret and exhibit the tangible and intangible heritage.” To do this they must be open to the public, accessible, inclusive and engage their communities ethically and professionally.

In the past, some museums were content to focus on educating their visitors through lectures and exhibitions, ignoring the need to communicate with a wider range of audiences. Others acquired objects of dubious provenance, talked about pieces from non-western cultures through a western lens and divorced them from their cultural context.

Fortunately, the new ICOM definition encourages museums to reconsider how they serve their communities and to rethink their assumptions about what it means to be a museum. The development of this definition is a massive undertaking, involving the consultation of more than 141 of ICOM’s National Committees and six International Committees over an 18-month period.

This is a very exciting time to be working in museums because it seems like they are finally starting to change. For example, the Louvre recently implemented a system that allows visitors to reserve tickets online ahead of their visit, helping to manage visitor flow and ensure a more pleasant experience for all. This is just one of many examples that show that museums are becoming more responsive to the needs of their communities. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues at ICOM and all the members of the museum community as we move towards an even more relevant, democratic and engaged future for museums. I hope you will join us!