What Is a Museum?

In a word, a museum is a place that houses and displays artefacts for the purpose of preservation and interpretation. It differs from a library in that the objects housed in a museum are mostly unique and provide the raw material for research and discovery, being removed in time, place, and circumstance from their original context. They communicate directly with the visitor in a way that cannot be achieved through any other medium. Museums come in all shapes and sizes, from hushed halls that give off a musty smell to noisy centers filled with kids running hither and thither. They can be dedicated to revered words of art or collections of living insects, or to a cause as simple as promoting civic pride or nationalistic endeavour. They may be staffed by scholars who have studied the world far and wide or merely a bunch of people with a passion for their subject.

But all museums share the fundamental purpose of preserving and interpreting some tangible aspect of human culture. This is why the members of ICOM, the international council of museum professionals, voted to collectively update the definition of a museum with language like ‘inclusivity,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘community.’ The new ICOM definition also punctuates the distinction between acquisition and collection, emphasizing that museums hold artefacts in trust for society; they are not the owners of them nor do they have the power to dispose of them as they wish.

Originally, the word was used in classical Greece to describe places connected with the Muses and thus a place of artistic or intellectual pursuit. During the Renaissance, however, the concept of a museum expanded beyond its classical roots. In fact, the first museums were established for a variety of reasons: as recreational facilities; as scholarly venues; to encourage tourism; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavor; and sometimes even to transmit overtly ideological concepts.

Museums can be found all over the globe, from small art galleries to massive museums showcasing everything from ancient treasures to contemporary pop culture memorabilia. Many are open to the public for free, while others must charge a fee to cover operating expenses. They can be nonprofits, which are tax exempt and invest any money made back into the organization, or private, for-profit companies that earn a profit.

The biggest challenge in defining what a museum is, of course, is that there are so many types. Some are building-less, such as a virtual museum. Others are based on scientific collections, such as zoological or botanical gardens, which do not have the same cultural appeal as, say, the Museum of Modern Art. There is even a museum dedicated to the history of prostitution, a subject that is bound to spark heated debate.