What Is a Museum?


A museum is a place that houses and displays art, cultural objects, natural history, or scientific specimens. It may also house historical artifacts, and it may organize educational activities for the public to learn more about those artifacts. Museums come in many shapes and sizes. They can be hushed halls with a musty smell, or they can be noisy centers filled with kids running hither and yon. They can have revered words of art or collections of living insects. They can be in beautiful buildings, on historic sites, or even on dry-docked ships. In defining what museums are, it seems that every person has their own opinion.

Despite their seemingly universal appeal, however, there is a great deal of disagreement over what exactly a museum is. In fact, the very question of what a museum is has caused a stir at the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which represents museums worldwide. Several people working on a committee to revise the definition have resigned in recent months.

The debate over what a museum is has a lot to do with the role of the institution in society. As I wrote in an earlier article, museums can have a variety of social impacts beyond the education and enjoyment they provide for the public. For example, some museums serve as economic catalysts. In these cases, the museum attracts tourists and generates revenue that enables the institution to continue its mission of preservation and dissemination. Other museums use their exhibitions to address pressing societal issues, such as gender equality, race relations, or climate change. These museums challenge the status quo and provoke thought, and in doing so, they can create community.

In addition to fulfilling their mission, museums must also be able to manage resources like staff, space, and funds. A museum must be able to balance the needs of its collection and its audience to maintain relevance in the face of a changing world. This requires a flexible organizational structure that can respond to shifting needs and expectations.

Museums must also be able to navigate a complicated relationship with the objects in their care. The old ICOM definition stated that museums “acquire…the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity.” But to acquire something is to take it into one’s possession and control, and it is a problematic way of conceiving the role of a museum. The new definition shifts the focus to interpret, which is about describing an object’s meaning in the light of its context and community.

There are many other ways that museums can serve society, and their roles will continue to evolve in the future. For example, pop up museums are proving that an institution does not need to be permanent to have a profound impact on its audience. In the next few years, we’ll see more and more museums that move from the traditional building model to the non-traditional portable or mobile formats. This allows them to meet their audience where they are and fosters a more diverse community.