What is a Museum?


A museum is an institution that collects and cares for objects of scientific, artistic or historical importance, making them available to the public. There are many different types of museums, from large ones with collections in several locations to small museums that focus on a single place and topic, such as local history or aviation. Museums may also provide educational activities for students and teachers, such as lectures or workshops by museum staff or field experts, or offer film screenings, musical performances and technology demonstrations.

There are governmental and non-governmental museums, as well as private family and commercial ones. Museums are usually non-profit and charge a fee to enter, though some are free or operate on a volunteer basis. They are often located in historic or cultural buildings, and most have a permanent collection with exhibition spaces. Some also have special exhibitions for a limited time, called temporary or travelling shows.

The word “museum” comes from the Greek mouseion, a temple or place of the Muses (see history of museums). From ancient times, people have used the term to describe places where the arts and sciences were cultivated. Later the word came to mean a collection of artifacts collected for display, whether or not they were owned by the museum. Today, museums are established for a wide range of purposes, such as recreational facilities or as scholarly venues; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavour; to attract tourism or as educational resources; to transmit overtly ideological concepts; or as centres of research in specific disciplines.

While most museums are open to the general public, some are private and only accessible to members of a club or an association, such as a school or a community group. Others are a part of universities or colleges, where their collections are available to students. Some museums are sponsored by corporations, while others receive government funding or support.

A museum is a non-profit institution that acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purpose of education, study, enjoyment and inspiration. It is a place where the past is present in the future.

One of the biggest challenges for a museum is to balance its mission with its financial needs and concerns. For example, a large museum with a strong brand and measurable marketing budget can easily attract tourists to its space, even if the exhibitions are controversial or don’t relate to the museum’s stated purpose.

The new definition of museum developed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) calls on museums to shift their objectives from transmitting expert knowledge to fostering dialogue and connection with communities. It also encourages museums to be open to their own changing contexts and to consider the role of new technologies in supporting their operations. The new definition will be voted on at the next ICOM General Conference in 2022.