What Is a Museum?

A museum (from the Greek mouseion, meaning place of the Muses) is a not-for-profit public institution in service of society and its development that collects, researches, conserves, communicates, and exhibits cultural heritage for the purposes of education, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing. It is a cultural and educational organization that is open to the public, operates ethically, professionally, and with a focus on diversity and sustainability.

The word museum has been around for thousands of years. The first museums were collections of art, often held by private individuals who made them available to the public. Later, museums became more organized and formalized with government funding, professional associations, and training programs.

Museums can take a variety of forms and are located in all types of places, from huge art centers in big cities to small local ones. They can have hushed halls with musty smells or noisy centers filled with children running hither and thither. They can have revered words of art or collections of living insects, and they can be a mix of all of them.

In addition to having an educational role, many museums are also important economic engines for their host communities. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, for instance, was built in an effort to revitalize the city of Bilbao, Spain. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, brings in millions of visitors each year to help pay for the staff and the buildings that house the exhibits.

There are many different kinds of museums, depending on the size and type of collection and the location. Some museums are general museums that have collections from all over the world in a broad range of topics and time periods, such as the British Museum with its millions of objects, including the Elgin Marbles that once decorated the Parthenon. Others have collections of a specific kind, such as the Louvre in Paris with its paintings and sculptures or the Medici Museum in Florence, Italy, with its marvelous Renaissance artworks.

Another type of museum is the historic site museum, which is a museum that focuses on a particular historic place and collects everything connected to that place, such as at the Alamo in San Antonio or the Giddings Stone Mansion in Brenham. This is one of the fastest-growing museum types, and there are many more historic sites that could become museums, given adequate resources.

The International Council of Museums is working to develop a new definition for a museum that will be adopted by Unesco. Its latest round of consultations involved 126 of Icom’s National Committees, with over 50,000 members being spoken to over an 18-month period. The new definition is expected to be finalized in 2021.