Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Definition of a Museum

The Definition of a Museum

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Whether you’re looking at ancient mummies, Renaissance paintings or a spaceship, a museum has the power to transport you into another time or place. Museums hold the world’s most iconic artifacts and artworks, and are a cornerstone of global culture. They tell stories of the past, and are a source of inspiration for the future. They connect people from all walks of life and serve a myriad of purposes – from educational to entertaining. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that museums are a multi-purpose experience. Museums can even be defined in terms of the different identities museum visitors take on – from facilitators, who enjoy a museum through their role as host for their children or guests to explorers, who seek out whatever grabs them.

Yet despite this great diversity, most museums share the same core functions: collecting and preserving objects for the public good; researching, caring for and interpreting their collections; and providing education and entertainment. This is not surprising, since museums were first established in antiquity and developed as academic institutions for the preservation and display of interesting objects. Historically, most museums have also been funded and run by the government or local communities, with many offering apprenticeships as their primary method of training.

In recent times, however, museums have been facing a host of challenges. The way in which they acquire, display and interpret objects has come into question. For example, some museums display artifacts with dubious provenance or talk about pieces from non-western cultures through a western lens, divorced from their cultural context. Moreover, many museums are struggling with the balance between their institutional autonomy and their responsibility to foster engagement and connection with their communities.

This is not the fault of individual museums, but the result of a larger set of societal issues. The good news is that the sector is aware of this and is working to address these issues through a variety of initiatives and tools. For example, the new ICOM definition of a museum challenges museums to cede some of their institutional authority and focus on their role as connectors in the community rather than transmitters of expert knowledge.

The definition of a museum is changing rapidly as we enter a new chapter in the history of museums. This is a moment of tremendous opportunity to redefine the role and function of museums in the 21st century.

We are pleased to report that the ICOM Standing Committee for the Museum Definition has approved a methodology going forward, which is greatly based on the needs for consultation and inclusion of all stakeholders in this process. The intention is to arrive at the next ICOM General Conference in 2022 with a museum definition proposal to be voted on.

For more information on this and related initiatives, please click on the link below. You can also check out the Museums Matter video series and the museopunk exhibition on our Pinterest board.