Matagorda County Museum Our Blog A New Definition of the Museum

A New Definition of the Museum

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As a cultural institution, a museum is an organisation that researches, collects and preserves tangible and intangible heritage for the benefit of society. It also exhibits, communicates and facilitates the learning of knowledge in a diverse range of settings. It does so in service to its community and is open to all. It is run on a not-for-profit basis and operates ethically, professionally and with sustainable governance.

The word museum is a Latin derivation of the Greek Mouseion, meaning “seat of the Muses.” Museum has been used in a wide variety of ways since its origins, from describing places that have a collection of objects to sites of history or culture. Some museums are aimed at the entertainment of the public or the academic or scholarly community; others, like the Alamo, focus on transmitting a specific and sometimes overtly ideological message.

Many of the issues that surround museums today are a direct result of this diversity in purpose and message. As a result, the museum sector has been struggling for years with how to define what a museum is. A new definition is urgently needed in order to provide a platform for discussion about the future of museums.

This paper seeks to address this need by proposing a new definition for the museum. It builds on the work of the previous ICOM definitions, while attempting to reflect current developments in the museum field. It identifies the most important attributes of museums as those related to the why, the how and who. The why and the how are based on five principles: that the definition be short and simple; that it clearly distinguishes museums from other collecting institutions; that it include all types of museums, including those that focus on the arts, heritage or natural history; that it be flexible enough to allow for local interpretation; and that it encompasses the full range of contemporary museum ideologies.

Defining the museum in this way allows for more clarity and debate. It enables museum professionals to discuss the future of their institutions in a clearer and more meaningful way. In particular it opens up the debate about what the purpose of a museum should be, as it allows for a more inclusive, socially responsible and diverse approach to the role of the museum.

It also frees museums to be more experimental, more edgy and less defensive about their identity. It removes the need to fight for a museum that is purely and solely about collections; it allows the museums to focus on more pressing social concerns such as climate change, the environment and other social issues. In addition, it moves away from a Eurocentric approach to the museum and puts greater emphasis on national, regional and local determination of museum purposes and identities. It makes it possible to tackle the big questions around decolonisation, repatriation and restitution of museum collections.