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ICOM Defines Museums – First Round of Consultation

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Museums come in many forms. They can be hushed halls with musty smells or noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. They can hold revered words of art or collections of living insects. They can have huge blockbuster exhibitions or smaller ones that may not have made it onto the news. But, in the end, museums all serve one purpose: to help people understand their world and the place they live in it.

As a result, museum professionals from all over the globe offer many definitions as to what a museum is. Some definitions focus on a building that houses collections of cultural or artistic objects while others include science centers and even zoological and botanical gardens. Some definitions focus on the collection itself while others emphasize the story being told. What all of these definitions have in common is that they are rooted in the need to share culture and knowledge with the public.

Museums have been established for a variety of reasons, including to serve as recreational facilities; to act as places where scholarship is done; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavour; and even to transmit overtly ideological concepts. Their diversity in form, content and function is astonishing.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is currently in the process of fostering an international consensus on a new museum definition, bringing together 40,000 museum professionals from around the globe to consider their roles and responsibilities as cultural heritage organizations. The new ICOM definition challenges museums to cede their institutional authority to their communities and shift their objective from transmitting expert knowledge to fostering dialogue and connection.

This is a critical time for museums. They are facing many challenges, such as declining visitor numbers, lack of financial sustainability and the need for more inclusion and participation from their local communities. It is important that they take the time to listen to what their visitors need from them and to define a future direction based on this information.

This first round of consultation is a key opportunity to do just that. We have received richly varied and valuable responses from 23 National Committees, 6 International Committees and 1 Affiliated Organisation that will inform the next steps of the ICOM Define museum definition reformulation process. We encourage all members and committees to review these submissions in the Museum Definition space of the ICOM website. Dates have been set for the subsequent rounds of consultation and will be published soon. More information can also be found in ICOM’s new Methodology for Museum Definition Reformulation. The next step will be to consult on the proposed new definition at the General Conference in 2022.