What Is a Museum?

A museum is an institution that collects, preserves, researches, communicates and exhibits cultural heritage for the benefit of all. The term museum is derived from the Greek museion, which was a temple or place dedicated to the muses, who inspired music and art. Museums are non-profit, permanent institutions that serve society and its development. They acquire, conserve, restore, research, share and display cultural heritage objects and their documentation. Museums are often associated with the arts, but they may also encompass fields like science, technology and social history.

The largest museums in the world have a wide range of collections that showcase human creativity across time, culture and geography. They have a unique responsibility for preserving and making accessible these precious and fragile items to the general public. Museums must provide visitors with information about the historical context and meaning of each object, as well as make it possible for viewers to experience the works in a way that is emotionally and intellectually meaningful.

Many museums offer a variety of different types of experiences and are open to people of all backgrounds. Museums can be educational in their approach, and some even have outreach programs that bring their collections to schools and other community groups. Museums are usually run by a director or curator, and they have a staff that cares for the objects in their collection and arranges them for exhibition. Many large museums will have a research division or institute, which is involved in studies related to the objects in the museum, and an education department that provides interpretation of the material for the general public.

Museums are also concerned with the future, and they try to keep up with changing trends in culture, technology and climate change. They respond to issues that affect their communities and the global community by enacting sustainable museum practices and developing exhibitions that highlight them. Museums can also be places of inspiration for their audiences. In his book Life Stages of the Museum Visitor, James Chung of Reach Advisors writes that some visitors seek museums for the inspirational experience they can provide.

Whether they are a museum of art, natural history or culture, every one of them is an inspiring resource that helps to enrich the lives of the people who visit them. In a world that is more interconnected than ever before, museums can play an important role in building understanding among different cultures. The new definition of museum, which was adopted today in Prague at an extraordinary meeting of ICOM’s General Assembly, is a step toward this goal. The drafting of this definition has been a major undertaking, involving extensive consultation with museum representatives throughout the world, through conferences and workshops held by Icom’s committees in Costa Rica, Kenya, New Zealand, France, Australia and elsewhere. ICOM encourages all members to review the new definition and its associated documents, as well as previous proposals for a new definition, for the sake of informed discussion.