The New ICOM Definition of the Museum


The word museum brings to mind hushed halls that smell of dust and ancient paintings, but museums are much more than places with revered words of art or collections of living insects. Museums can be a place of research, an educational resource, or even a tool for social change. Museums exist everywhere from massive institutions that host Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa to small community-based galleries in rural America. They can be large buildings in major cities or small centers nestled in townscapes and villages, all with the common goal of collecting, preserving, researching, communicating and exhibiting the tangible and intangible heritage of humankind.

The first museums were created for a variety of purposes: to serve as recreational facilities; scholarly venues; educational resources; to attract tourism; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavour; or to transmit overtly ideological concepts. Nevertheless, a clear definition of the museum emerged by the 18th century and was enshrined in law with the establishment of the British Museum in 1753.

While museums continue to be established for a myriad of reasons, there is broad consensus that museums must address the challenge of cultural diversity. Yet many museums struggle to make this leap and fail to adequately engage the communities that they claim to serve. The new ICOM definition aims to tackle this issue by encouraging museums to consider diverse perspectives in their collections and interpretation practices, as well as in their community engagement activities.

To meet this objective, museums must consider what it means to be a museum today and understand how they can better embrace their diversity in order to fulfill the mission that was set out for them by their founders. The definition is an important first step towards this end, and it should be embraced by museums around the world.

A museum is a non-profit permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, that acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment. Its collections are of international character and span a wide range of artistic, scientific, technological, and cultural domains. It is also a dynamic and inclusive space for learning, exchanges, research, training and dialogue.

In the past, the old ICOM definition supported practices that are now seen as problematic. For example, museums often buy objects of dubious provenance or display them divorced from their cultural context. They also often talk about pieces from non-western cultures through a western lens or ignore indigenous knowledge.

To overcome these problems, the ICOM Define committee has developed a new methodology going forward that is based on greater transparency and careful listening to all proposals. It will be used to draft a new definition that will be submitted for approval at the ICOM General Conference in 2022. The new process will include four distinct rounds of consultation, involving all the ICOM National Committees, International Committees and Regional Alliances as well as the ICOM Affiliated Organisations.