What is a Museum?


The word museum can conjure up a host of images. Some think of a building filled with art or history, others might envision priceless treasures that are sure to make your jaw drop (think the Louvre, the Uffizi). But there’s more to a museum than just the stuff inside. There are also the buildings themselves, and the people who care for and protect them. It is this that really makes a museum what it is.

Major professional organizations from around the world offer a variety of definitions as to what a museum is, but all focus on the public good. The International Council of Museums defines a museum as “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.”

The term museum is derived from Greek mouseion, meaning seat of the Muses. It was used in this sense during classical times to refer to a place of intellectual discussion and reflection. Later, the term was applied to collections of rare and valuable items for exhibition purposes. It was not until the modern period that a more widespread emphasis on educating the public became part of the mission of museums.

As museums evolved from private collections of interesting objects to publicly funded institutions, their focus became more educational and they began to take on a broader range of subjects. In some cases, a museum will have a collection that spans many cultures and time periods. In other cases, the collection is focused on a particular theme or genre of art or historical material.

Today, museums have become a significant part of our global culture. They are a place where we can learn about our past, connect with other cultures and even discover things we might never have known otherwise. They can teach us about our shared values and the things that unite us as human beings. Museums are a vital part of our cultural consciousness and they should be accessible to everyone.

As a result of the debates at the MDPP2 meeting in Kyoto, the Standing Committee for Museum Definition has formulated a new methodology for its work going forward. This methodology is based on greater transparency and careful listening to all proposals. It will allow members of ICOM to better understand how they can participate in the museum definition reformulation process and will make it easier for them to share their views with their constituents.