What Is a Museum?

Museums are sanctuaries of knowledge, history and art that offer a chance to step out of our fast-paced, ever-changing world and take time to slow down and see the bigger picture. They are designed to deepen our understanding of everything from ancient civilisations and classical masterpieces to contemporary works and complex conflicts. Even those who are quick to dismiss museums as boring or out of touch might be surprised by the power of these institutions, which can often make you think differently about society.

But as museums morph into increasingly complex and diverse organizations, the definition of what constitutes a museum needs to change as well. The new ICOM definition aims to address this by asking museums to consider diversity and inclusion in their collections, exhibitions, and engagement practices. But it also emphasizes that a museum must be open to the public and operate and communicate ethically, professionally, and with the participation of communities.

The new ICOM definition makes it clear that museums are not owned by any one person or organization, and that they hold their artifacts in trust for society. This is a significant shift from the old definition, which said that museums acquire artifacts. To acquire means to seize something as one’s own, which can have negative implications for communities whose artifacts are being exhibited or collected by museums. This is especially true when museums impose their own criteria for what artifacts they accept.

Museums should be working harder to engage with their communities and listen to what they are saying. This is a great starting point, but it will be up to individual museums to move beyond the ICOM definition and develop a deeper understanding of what community engagement really means for them.

As museums adapt to their evolving audiences, they will need to embrace technology. This is an area where the definition hints at future possibilities by asking that museums “integrate emerging technologies in their work.” This could include augmented reality (AR), virtual reality, and 3D printing to offer more interactive experiences to visitors.

ICOM’s standing committee on the museum definition has just released its report on the results of consultation 1. While overall participation by National Committees, International Committees and Regional Alliances was high, there were many areas of discussion that need further exploration and discussion.

As the new ICOM definition points out, the word “museum” has classical origins, referring to a Mouseion or a place of contemplation and study. It was revived in Renaissance Italy to refer to places of collection and display, including the great Museum at Alexandria. This new definition suggests that museums must continue to evolve to meet the demands of their enthralled and growing audiences, as they strive to preserve and share our shared heritage for generations to come. The ICOM definition is a powerful tool to achieve this. What specific museums do with it, however, will depend on their own cultural context and users’ needs. For example, some museums might find the definition to be too tight and limiting. Others might find that it is broad enough to encourage them to grow further.