What Is a Museum?


A museum is an institution that protects and cares for objects of cultural significance, exhibits them to the public, and makes them available for research by scholars. It usually has a director who leads a staff that includes curators, registrars, and educators. It also has an auxiliary staff that supports the day-to-day work of the museum. Museums often cooperate with each other on projects and exhibitions. Museums are governed by boards of trustees or directors and have a code of ethics and policies that guide them. They may have collections policies that dictate how they acquire and manage their collections.

Museums are not restricted to a particular subject area, though some museums specialize in specific fields. In general museums are open to the public and provide educational programs and activities for schoolchildren and adults. They often host lectures and tutorials by faculty members and field experts, films, musical and dance performances, technology demonstrations, and art or architectural tours. Museums often have research departments and institutes that study the museum’s objects in depth. They may sponsor research and conferences for the public as well.

The concept of the museum evolved around the idea of preservation and interpretation. The twin concepts are rooted in the human propensity to collect and inquire. Evidence of collecting can be found in Paleolithic burials, while evidence of the need to preserve and communicate findings is evident in the preservation of mummies and cave paintings.

In the past, museums often collected objects with religious, magical, economic, or aesthetic value, or that were simply curiosities. They housed them in treasuries or other collections, which were sometimes open to the public for a fee. The old ICOM definition supported this practice, because it said a museum “acquires…the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment.” By labeling objects as part of the “heritage of mankind,” museums separated them from their cultural context.

The new ICOM definition calls for museums to engage with diverse communities. It also requires that museums consider the perspectives of those who do not look like them, or who do not speak the same language. It is hoped that the new definition will make museums more transparent in their collection and engagement practices, and will encourage more diversity in their institutions.

Museums play many economic roles in their cities and regions. They can help attract tourism, promote local culture, and provide jobs in the industry. They can also serve as a catalyst for urban revitalization. Examples of this include the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which was built to redevelop a dilapidated city center in Spain.

A museum is a place where we can see and touch the artifacts of the past, learn about the different cultures that have existed throughout history, and reflect upon how we have changed as a species. It is a way to understand how we came to be where we are today, and how we might evolve in the future. Museums are the keepers of time.