What Is a Museum?

A museum is a cultural institution dedicated to collecting, conserving and interpreting art and history. Typically, museums are nonprofit organizations that depend on donations to survive. Most major professional organizations from around the world offer some definitions as to what constitutes a museum, but they all share a common theme: museums are intended to be accessible to the public.

The term is used to describe a wide variety of facilities and functions, but the museums that most people think of when they hear the word are art or historical ones with carefully curated collections. These institutions often feature awe-inspiring exhibitions that can change even the most cynical of museum skeptics. In addition, museums in many parts of the world serve as community centers that provide educational opportunities, social activities and health services to their visitors.

Museums can be found in nearly every country and city, from small towns to large metropolises. They are often housed in historic buildings or other sites that are themselves important to the local culture. They may be owned by the government or by private entities, but they are often run by a board of trustees. Museums have historically been primarily cultural institutions, but there are increasing efforts to engage with contemporary society and explore the role they can play in society today.

Some museums are meant to convey a particular point of view, or to inspire a certain mood in the visitor, while others are more traditional and simply seek to educate and inform. But all museums are bound by their responsibilities to preserve and interpret primary tangible evidence of humankind and its environment, and communicate those objects to the public.

Whether they are filled with treasures that once belonged to the wealthy and prestigious, as in the case of some medieval or early modern museums, or with works created by a particular school of thought or by specific cultures, these institutions offer a window into a world that is both ancient and modern, beautiful and ugly, complex and simple.

Museums also can have economic roles in the communities they serve, for instance by attracting tourism to the area, or by revitalizing a city, as in the case of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. They can also serve as a symbol of civic pride or nationalistic effort, as was the intention behind the Museum of Fine Arts in Paris when it opened in 1889. The definition of a museum is being re-examined in the modern world, and there are several new ideas about how museums should function in an increasingly complicated and challenging world.