What Is a Museum?

A museum is a non-profit 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 educational purposes. Museums also provide a place for reflection and inspiration and contribute to cultural diversity and social cohesion.

While many museums started as collections of privately owned art or historical objects, their defining characteristics are their status as non-profit and their public access. Since the early 19th century, it became increasingly common for governments and regional authorities to set up museums expressly intended to be available to the general public.

This led to the creation of a variety of different museums, some with overlapping specialties, but all sharing the same purpose: making accessible the artifacts and other items that reflect the culture of an area to its citizens. Museums began to employ staff that could address the various facets of their mission: curators and conservators to care for collections; curators of natural history, archaeology or art to organize exhibitions; information scientists to handle the immense amount of data inherent in a large collection; and even marketing managers to promote and market the museum.

In the past, museum education was primarily taught through apprenticeship and based on a mainly scholarly approach to the field. This remained the case until more institutions began to offer higher level degrees in museum studies. These degrees paved the way for the development of theory and practice that would help shape what we know as the modern museum.

Although some museological thinking has roots in the ancient Greeks, it was not until the mid-19th century that museums started to employ scholars to develop and teach a more formalized method of museum education. This, combined with an increased emphasis on museum outreach, was a fundamental turning point for the evolution of the modern museum.

In 2019, the International Council of Museums (Icom) convened at its conference in Kyoto to debate a new definition for museums. While consensus was not reached, a revised methodology for going forward has been developed and is now formally open to the 126 National Committees, International Committees, Regional Alliances and Affiliated Organisations that make up Icom.

The methodology is based on greater transparency and careful listening to all proposals. The goal is to arrive at the next ICOM General Conference in 2022 with a museum definition proposal that has been approved by the membership.

In a world of ever-increasing diversity, the museum has a vital role to play in fostering tolerance and understanding among cultures. It is through dialogue and cooperation, rather than confrontation, that a museum can achieve its true mission. We need to remember this as we work towards a better future for the world’s museums.