What Makes a Museum?


In a world increasingly inundated with information, museums are sanctuaries of history and art; spaces that allow you to slow down, take in and reflect. In the best museums, you can discover everything from ancient civilisations and classical masterpieces to contemporary works and complex conflicts. But what makes a museum? While there is considerable variation between museum missions, major professional organizations offer some definitions of what a museum should be. The most common tenets are: that the museums serve the public, that they should be non-profit and permanent institutions, that they should be dedicated to the research, collection, preservation and interpretation of objects, and that they should be open to all.

The word museum derives from the Greek mouseion, meaning “seat of the Muses.” The great Museum at Alexandria in Ptolemaic times (3rd century bce) was a prototype university and functioned as a space for philosophical discussion. Later, the word came to refer to a collection of treasured items and was used in Latin as museo. During the early 19th century, museums began to emerge worldwide, often founded by regional or national authorities in service of society and for the benefit of all citizens.

A wide variety of museum purposes has emerged from this diversity, but all are tied to a fundamental goal: the preservation and interpretation of some material aspect of our cultural consciousness. This purpose can be seen in museums founded to serve as recreation facilities; scholarly venues for teaching and research; collections management; tourist attractions; centers of civic pride and nationalistic endeavour; or even to transmit overtly ideological concepts.

As museums have evolved to meet the changing needs of our societies, they have also changed in their physical appearance and operational model. In response to the need for a more holistic approach, a new definition of what constitutes a museum was approved today at the Icom Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague. The new definition reads: “A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage, and does so for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

Museums have always played an important economic role in our communities, especially as they continue to be sought out by tourists from around the globe. But the most successful museums have always been those that find a way to engage with their visitors on more than just a superficial level. This has become clear through the work of experts such as James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors, who have documented the similar needs that many museum visitors share. And it has been reflected in the richly varied responses received by Icom’s National Committees in consultation 1 on the new museum definition.