A museum is a non-profit institution, public or private, in the service of society and its development, dedicated to the collection, preservation, research, exhibition and communication of the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, and which is open to the public. Museums also include those institutions dedicated to the study of art, culture and science.
Museums are a place where visitors learn about the world around them through carefully curated collections and transcendent exhibits. While some may see museums as a place of dull history lessons, there are plenty of galleries and cultural centers around the globe that have mastered how to engage audiences with their thoughtfully designed spaces, stunning architecture and fascinating artifacts.
While many of us associate museums with hushed halls and a musty smell, they can be found in the most unexpected of places—from sprawling cities to rural areas. From the Rosetta Stone that helped decipher hieroglyphs to a world-renowned art gallery, there is much to explore inside museums. And despite the challenges that they face, museums are still an important part of our global human heritage.
In recent months, the International Council of Museums has been rocked by a controversy over its definition of a museum. The organization is a nonprofit that represents the interests of museums worldwide, and it is responsible for establishing standards that define what a museum should be. But a committee that is working to revise this definition has hit a snag, and members have quit in protest.
The controversy over the museum definition comes at a time when museums are being asked to do more than just preserve objects. They are being called upon to engage with their communities and shift the focus of their mission from a transfer of knowledge to a more inclusive approach.
It is clear that the old museum definition, created in the 1970s and last amended in 2007, no longer reflects the needs of museums today. As a result, it is no wonder that a new proposal was put forward at the last Icom conference in 2019 to update the definition. However, the process has stalled due to a lack of consensus between committees on how to word the revision. Issues such as decolonization and repatriation have not been included in the current proposals, and it seems unlikely that a compromise will be reached before Icom’s next general assembly.
While the museum definition is important, the way that museums are managed is just as vital. Whether small or large, all museums have to be run effectively and efficiently in order to fulfil their missions. This is why the museum profession has developed a body of theory known as museology, which lays out a framework for museums to use in their day-to-day activities.
Museums are managed by a director, who works with a team of curators that is in charge of care and interpretation. There are other staff members who are involved in areas like fundraising, visitor services and information technology. The director is usually governed by the policies established by the governing body of the museum, which will also set forth a code of ethics and bylaws for the institution.