What is a Museum?


Museums can be hushed halls filled with revered works of art or noisy centers where children run hither and yon. They can have objects on display that were once the property of war criminals or treasures discovered by a famous archeologist. Some museums are collections of living insects or old paintings, while others have no physical location at all — they’re virtual. Whatever they are, however, museums are a fascinating window into the world’s past. They also offer a glimpse into the future, as objects that many see as mundane today might end up on the exhibit floor of a museum in 100 years.

Museum, according to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), is a non profit permanent institution in the service of society and its development open to all, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and displays the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the education, inspiration, and enjoyment of present and future generations. The definition is deliberately broad and inclusive. As such, science centers, zoological gardens and aquariums are all considered museums even though they don’t have any cultural or artistic objects.

Most people, especially those who work in the field, have their own opinions of what a museum is and what it should be. These opinions are reflected in the number of different definitions of the word floating around. The most recent, from ICOM, was approved in 2022. It calls for a more contemporary approach that stresses terms like accessibility, diversity and community.

When museums are founded, their organizers set lofty goals of public service in a particular field. They may or may not restrict themselves to these goals, but they will be cautious about drifting too far afield for fear of public censure.

One of the most interesting museums in the world is the Louvre in Paris, which is widely viewed as having the best collection of art in the world. It includes everything from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Indian art to paintings by the likes of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The most impressive piece in the entire museum is, however, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Museums can be found all over the world, ranging from small, out of the way places to huge, famous ones. Some are devoted to particular cultures, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., which is the largest museum in the world devoted to human history. Other museums are dedicated to a single building or site, such as the Alamo in Texas, Giddings Stone Mansion in Brenham or Emancipation Park in Houston. In some cases, the museum is a building itself, such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Museums can also serve an economic role in developing or rejuvenating a city, for example by bringing tourists to the area.