The New ICOM Definition of Museum

Museums are places where people go to see and touch artifacts that help them understand the world around them. These institutions are usually not for profit and are run by a director, with a staff that researches, collects, conserves, interprets, and exhibits objects of cultural, historical, scientific, or artistic significance. Museums were first developed in ancient times, a result of what may be an innate human desire to collect and share.

Depending on the institution, museums vary in form and content. They can be small, like the Emancipation Park in Houston or the Giddings Stone Mansion in Brenham, or large, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London which is visited by nearly 4 million visitors per year. The V&A is one of the largest museums of applied arts, design, and housing in the world, with a collection of over 2 million objects dating back more than 5000 years.

In the past, museums have been founded for a variety of reasons including recreational facilities; scholarly venues; educational resources; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavour; and even to transmit overtly ideological concepts. Nevertheless, they reveal a remarkable diversity in form and function that is bound by their common goal of the preservation and interpretation of some material aspect of our culture.

While museums are not for profit, they are often financially dependent on the fees paid by visitors to enter and view their collections. Many museums have been struggling to make ends meet, especially since the economic downturn in 2009. Some have closed entirely while others have scaled back on their collecting activities.

A major challenge facing museums is to find ways to become more financially sustainable and to continue to be accessible to all members of their communities. To do this they need to take up the new ICOM definition of museum and change their focus from transmitting expert knowledge to fostering dialogue and connection.

The new ICOM definition states that museums “hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society.” This means that museums don’t own them and they cannot dispose of them as they please, but rather they are a public resource and must be made available to all.

To do this, they need to connect with their audiences and be more transparent about the role they play in preserving our cultural heritage for future generations. This is why they need to develop and implement a strategy to achieve sustainability and increase their reach, such as by creating an app that allows users to see and share objects from their collection. It is also why they need to think more creatively about how they can engage with their audience and offer experiences that are unique to them. Museums that do this successfully are able to establish a strong bond with their visitors and generate loyalty that businesses might struggle to match. This is how they have maintained their stellar reputation and continue to be the most popular visitor attractions in the world.