What is a Museum?


A museum is a not-for-profit institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, communicates and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage for education, cultural, scientific and aesthetic purposes. It includes museums of art, natural history and science, historic houses, folk culture, zoos, etc. Museums can be hushed places that emanate a musty smell or bustling centers where kids are running hither and thither. They can be about national history, world culture or even Texas lore. There are even museums that exist only on the Internet.

The word museum comes from the Latin “museo” meaning collection and the Greek “” or muse, which means inspiration. In the beginning, museums were places to inspire the human spirit in a spiritual sense. In ancient Greece they were centres of enlightenment, and in Victorian times they were sources of national pride. Today, museums are at the centre of social, cultural and economic development and regeneration in cities and regions across the globe.

In recent years some museums have also begun to play an important economic role by creating jobs, attracting tourists and encouraging investment. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain is an excellent example of a museum being used for economic revitalization. Museums are also increasingly being seen as a key part of the public realm, and many cities are investing in new museum buildings to help their cities become more attractive places for people to live.

Throughout the centuries museums have adapted to meet the needs of their communities. Museums have evolved from collections of objects deposited in a temple to showcases of national treasures that fed the fervor of Napoleon’s armies. In the modern era museums have developed to include more interactive experiences and are often moving away from the traditional museum as warehouse of artifacts.

This is reflected in the new definition of a museum adopted by ICOM (International Council of Museums). This has been designed to reflect the major changes taking place in the role and function of museums worldwide. The new definition emphasises the need for inclusivity, access and participation.

There are a wide variety of types of museums around the world and each is unique. Some are large and internationally renowned while others are small and locally based. Museums may be owned by a government department, a local council or private owners. Most museums are run by a Director who has a staff that cares for the objects and prepares them for display. The largest museums may have an extensive research division that studies the items and develops educational programs. They are funded by a combination of grants, donations and admission fees. The majority of museums are non-profit organizations but some have a commercial or for-profit model.