What is a Museum?


Museum is a word that covers a lot of ground. It describes places that house collections of iconic objects and strive to share them with people to help increase their appreciation or understanding. It’s also a word that describes organizations whose purpose is education, even though many museums would not consider themselves educational, and it’s a word that’s loose enough to allow museums to do darn near anything.

Some museums are hushed halls that smell musty, while others are noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. Museums can be shrines to famous battles or to a specific building, like the Alamo, or they can have collections that span the globe, including live insects and books. They can have revered words of art or exhibits that make you feel like you are in the middle of an ancient Egyptian temple.

Most museums are non-profits or NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Some for-profit companies operate museums, although those institutions don’t always use the word “museum” in their name and may not call themselves that. They can be large or small, urban or rural, and they can be in private hands or owned by a government or a corporation. But the common theme is that museums are intersections between collected things, information about those collected things and experiences that people can have.

Museums are the result of an innate human desire to collect and interpret the material evidence of our past. This history has left us with a rich heritage that we can experience and learn from. There are many ways to explore our world’s cultural heritage, but few ways more enriching and accessible than through a visit to a museum.

But the wide range of possible activities that museums undertake can create some confusion about what a museum is and what its purpose should be. There are varying definitions from major professional organizations, but most include the following elements:

A museum is a non-profit permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, that researches, collects, conserves, communicates and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage, for education, study, enjoyment and reflection. Museums work ethically, responsibly and in partnership with communities and offer varied experiences for education, enjoyment and knowledge sharing.

In the last decade, some museums have emphasized their educational role in response to public concerns about declining attendance and the need to raise funds. This emphasis has been reinforced by a growing body of research that supports the effectiveness of museums as educational resources for young people, particularly students and underserved populations.

In light of the need for a more clear and inclusive definition of museum, Icom has undertaken its most extensive outreach effort in its history to develop a new museum definition. Representatives from 126 Icom National Committees and other museums around the world have been consulted in four distinct rounds of discussion by the ICOM Define committee. The results of this consultation will be presented to the next ICOM General Conference in 2022.