What Is a Museum?

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, that acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment. It is also a place of learning and recreation, and it fosters the sense of wonder that can inspire people to explore, understand and value cultural production.

Museums have an important responsibility in our times to be more inclusive, recognizing that the world is diverse and presenting its diversity to visitors. They must also be more transparent about their collecting practices, and address issues of repatriation, restitution and decolonization. And they must strive for sustainability and ensure the protection of the environment, as well as the people who live within it.

In their earliest days, museums were collections of curiosities – objects that might have religious or magical significance, or just seem intriguing. These collections were often kept in temples and palaces, but later grew to be housed in specially built museums. In the 17th century, Ole Worm’s collection in Copenhagen became a museum (or mouseion) and John Tradescant’s famous collection in London was so called too. These collections were often accompanied by texts, cataloguing the objects and their histories. They were open to the general public, often for a small fee.

The museum of today, however, has a different relationship with the objects it houses. While the preservation of the physical object is still a central goal, museums have also evolved to become centres of knowledge. These are places that bring together experts from many disciplines to work on the objects, educate and inspire visitors, and communicate the knowledge of those objects. Museums employ curators to care for the collections, educators to develop teaching materials, designers to produce engaging exhibitions, information scientists to handle scientific data and researchers to uncover new information about the objects.

As a result of these changes, the museum has evolved beyond its classical origins to be an institution that serves a broader population than just scholars. The museums of today are often the most visited cultural institutions in the world. They serve as a refuge from the plastic, reproduced images that surround us, and provide a place of authenticity, stability and wonder.

It was in this context that the ICOM Define committee set out to draft a new definition of a museum, and which will be voted on at Icom’s next Extraordinary General Assembly in 2022. A key element of this process has been a series of consultations with museum representatives from around the world. The first round of consultation, Consultation 1, was completed in 2020, and provided Icom Define with a wealth of insights. These will be analysed and fed into the next phase of the process, Consultation 2. The second stage of consultation will start on December 10, 2020, and run until May 2022. It will consist of four distinct rounds, taking 18 months to complete.