What Is a Museum?

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for education, study and enjoyment. Museums also include live museums.

Museums can be hushed halls radiating a musty smell or bustling centers filled with children running hither and yon. They can house collections of mummies and the Rosetta Stone or paintings by Frida Khalo. They may send curators around the world to acquire works of art and other treasures. They may be the only source of information on certain topics. Museums can be a source of pride for a city or region, a place to promote civic or nationalistic endeavour, or transmit overtly ideological concepts. They can serve as recreation facilities, scholarly venues, or educational resources; attract tourists and contribute to economic development; or even be a source of urban renewal.

Often a museum’s collection is displayed in special exhibitions that are available to visit for a limited time. A museum’s website usually has pages describing present, future and past special exhibitions. In addition, some museums have a permanent collection of art works that are displayed throughout the year.

The new definition also pushes museums to consider diverse perspectives in their collections and exhibitions. It calls on museums to “consider a broader definition of heritage”, and to focus on “the shared value of the humanities and the natural sciences.” It also emphasises the need for museums to be places where communities can come together.

Many museums are struggling with a diversity problem. As the famous scene from Black Panther illustrates, they often display or talk about artifacts with dubious provenance, they divorce objects from their cultural context, and they ignore indigenous knowledge about their own artifacts. The old ICOM definition supported these practices, by saying that museums “acquire”. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, acquiring means to gain possession of something.

In order to address these problems, a process was initiated at Icom in 2019. The Standing Committee for the Museum Definition created a new methodology that is based on consultation and greater transparency. The process will culminate in a proposal to be submitted for the vote at Icom’s next General Conference in 2022.

The first round of consultations has already been conducted. The consultations were rich and revealing, and the results will guide the work of the Committee going forward.

We hope that you will continue to participate in the future of this important project. Your participation is essential! Your feedback is crucial to making sure that the final version of the new definition addresses your priorities. Please fill in the form below to contribute your ideas and comments. The form is very short and should take only a few minutes to complete. Your input is important, and we will use it to ensure that the new definition is meaningful for all museums and will be effective in addressing the challenges and opportunities facing our field.