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The Definition of a Museum

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The word museum conjures up images of large buildings full of precious treasures from the past. Indeed, some museums house some very valuable items and attract hordes of visitors, but it’s important to note that these places are so much more than just buildings filled with old stuff. The definition of a museum varies from one professional organization to the next, but major museums share a commitment to the public good and to the care, preservation, and interpretation of their collections.

Museums have a long history and may be traced back to the innate human desire to collect and communicate. Museums often develop around a single subject, such as art or science, and are organized as institutions that acquire, conserve, research, communicate, and exhibit objects in service to the public.

In the earliest instances, museums were simply private collections of interesting items that were later displayed to the public. As museums grew in size and scope, the emphasis on education became more prominent. As a result, many modern museums are structured as non-profit educational institutions and are open to the general public.

While some museums have no collection at all, others may be very large and cover a wide range of subjects. For example, the Louvre in Paris, France, is one of the world’s largest museums and features thousands of artifacts, from paintings to mummies to Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Other famous museums include the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and the British Museum in London, both of which have massive collections.

There are also specialized museums, such as those dedicated to specific locations or the life of a particular individual. A museum can be focused on a country or region, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or it can be more broadly based, such as a museum of ancient Egypt or a museum of aviation history.

A museum is run by a director, who works with a staff of curators and educators to organize the collection for display. Museums also often partner with other museums to bring together their collections for exhibit. In the past, this was done in order to share rare or expensive items that were not accessible to the general public, but more recently it is being done to increase exposure and reach to a wider audience.

The Standing Committee on Museum Definition is currently working on a reformulation of the museum definition for ICOM. Following the procedure established in the Manual on Museum Definition, ICOM Define will invite all committees and members to participate through a process of consultation, including the opportunity for ranking proposals at Consultation 1. ICOM members are encouraged to review all proposals and the methodology used to draft them in order to prepare their responses. Please visit the Museum Definition space to access all documents related to this work.