What Is a Museum?

A museum is a place where art, history and culture are preserved, displayed and shared, offering visitors the chance to deepen their knowledge of an area of interest. It is a space where the past and present come together in a harmonious mix to reflect our human condition and make sense of the world around us.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, collections of objects with religious, magical, economic, aesthetic or natural curiosities began to be established in Europe. But it was only in the early 19th century that the concept of museums emerged as an institution with a clear mission and public mandate. The founding of museums as institutions expressly intended for the general public, rather than as a private collection accessible to the few, began to gain momentum, led by a handful of pioneering institutions, most notably the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The word museum derives from the Greek noun museion, meaning “a place where things are kept”. Museums preserve and interpret primary tangible evidence about humankind and the environment, often through their collections, which can be both cultural and scientific in nature. They differ from libraries, with which they have sometimes been compared, in that their items are unique and communicate directly with visitors.

In recent years, museums have been increasingly focused on managing their own spaces as well as the items they hold. For example, the Louvre has been putting more and more effort into improving the visitor experience. This includes initiatives such as encouraging visitors to book their visit online and setting a cap on daily numbers, ensuring less crowded conditions and allowing for a more focused and meaningful experience of the works on display.

This is also reflected in the way that museums have started to work more closely with other cultural institutions, such as archives and libraries, in order to share information and resources. It is a growing trend that we expect will continue as we move into the future.

Museums are a vital part of the cultural heritage of their communities, whether they are dedicated to natural history, art or local history, and play a central role in our global community. They help to build a better understanding of the world we live in and are a source of inspiration and innovation for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The Icom Standing Committee for the Definition of a Museum (Icom Define) has concluded its consultation process with a new definition for museums. This new definition reflects the values of Icom, including inclusivity and access for all. It will be formally adopted during the Icom Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague in 2022. To learn more about this important step in the evolution of museums, read the full text of the Icom Define definition here.