What Is a Museum?


Museums are places where people come to see artifacts, and to learn more about the past, and to find meaning in what they see. Whether in a stunning modern building in Athens, or a light-filled space in New York City, museums beckon us with their beautiful collections and transcendent exhibitions. For anyone who has dismissed museums as dull and boring, a visit to any of the world’s great galleries will show them that museums have something to offer everyone, from skeptics to ardent museophiles.

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, for education, study and enjoyment. It carries out this work in accordance with the principles of integrity, impartiality and independence. It is distinguished from other collecting institutions by its purpose, which is to preserve the past, probe the present and prepare the future.

The word ‘museum’ comes from the Greek noun mseion, which means “a place of delectation and instruction.” Early on, this meant displaying art and other treasures for the general public. Later, it also meant providing information and education on the cultural heritage of a country or region. In this sense, the term is still widely used today.

There are a number of ways to define a museum, and the ICOM definition has been through several revisions over the years. The most current is the one that was approved at the Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague this year, which aligns with some of the major changes occurring in museums — including inclusivity and participation — while also remaining true to ICOM’s core values.

As the Museum Definition Working Group (MDPP) was developing this latest version, there was a strong desire to keep it simple and easy to understand and to avoid defining the museum by discipline or subject matter. Nevertheless, the MDPP was clear that there are fundamental aspects that must be included in any definition of a museum.

These include the governance, collecting, exhibiting and educating activities, the tools to carry out these activities, and the people who use the museums (the visitors). The new definition removes from the scope of the museum the idea of making money through shops and restaurants and uses the word ‘public’ instead of the more restrictive ‘publics’ in order to reflect this.

In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that shows the complexity of the reasons why people visit museums, from recapturing an experience from their childhood to seeking meaning in what they see. John Falk describes this in his recent book, Museums in the Present: Visitor Agency and Identity Construction, in which he suggests that museums are part of the social landscape, helping visitors construct their identities through participation. In this way museums are a part of the complex and ever-changing network of the world we live in, and are therefore a crucial element in preparing the future.