What Is a Museum?

A museum is an institution dedicated to preserving and interpreting artifacts for the purpose of education and enjoyment. Museums are non-profit, usually run by a director and a staff of curators and aides to care for the objects in the collection and arrange them for display in a variety of ways to educate the public about the various cultures throughout history. Museums can be large with multiple collections housed in a single building, or smaller with one collection focused on a specific location or subject matter.

A major difference between museums and other institutions such as libraries or archives is that museums are meant to engage with the world around them through their exhibitions, research, programs, and community outreach activities. This engagement is called museography. In order to develop their museography, museums need a clear identity and a means of coordinating and developing their activities. Museums have traditionally been organized in a variety of ways, with some being centralized at a government level, others operating as part of academic institutions, and others functioning in an apprenticeship mode, whereby new employees learn the trade through on the job training.

The museum’s most important asset is its collection of objects. It is for this reason that museums need to be properly protected and preserved. The most common method of protection for museum objects is the use of glass and other types of enclosures. The use of these protective structures allows the museum to preserve and protect its objects while still allowing them to be viewed by the public.

There are many different categories of museums ranging from Fine Arts Museums which include painting, sculpture and other decorative arts to Artifacts Museums that include archaeology and anthropology, as well as Historical and Cultural Museums. Other museum types include Military Museums, Children’s Museums and Science and Technology Museums. There are also specialized museums that focus on areas such as local or aviation history or philately.

Museums are often criticised for their lack of diversity and for failing to engage with the communities in which they operate. This criticism is sometimes justified with examples such as museums showing objects whose provenance is questionable, or ignoring indigenous knowledge about their own artifacts. These practices are rooted in the old ICOM definition which stated that museums acquire “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity.” However, the new ICOM definition does not include acquisition in its description of what a museum is, as it recognises that acquiring is about asserting power over objects rather than about bringing them together for a shared experience.

When the committee of experts was attempting to create a new definition, they faced many objections. Those objections included concerns about political language, such as the words “decolonisation” and “restitution,” which were seen as too sensitive for some museums to use in their communication with the public. The chairman of the committee, Jette Sandahl, resigned in June due to disagreements about this. However, the process is continuing.