Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Definition of a Museum

The Definition of a Museum

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A museum is a place for the preservation and interpretation of objects that represent a particular culture or historical period. They serve to enrich and enlighten us about the past, from ancient civilisations and classical masterpieces to contemporary works and complex conflicts. Whether a museum is housed in a building or on a historic site, it’s mission is to collect and protect its collection and then share it with the public.

Museums vary in size and scope, but they are all bound by their shared purpose of preserving, interpreting, and encouraging cultural understanding and appreciation. They have long been a focus of popular interest, with exhibitions such as the Cabinet of Curiosities or a show on lunar photographs drawing record-breaking crowds.

The origins of the concept of the museum can be traced back to human propensities toward collecting and inquiry. Early examples include the assemblages found in Paleolithic burials and the copying of ancient inscriptions on tablets made by the Sumerians. By the early 18th century, scholarly institutions that aimed to promote corporate discussion and experimentation, and to provide for the advancement of science as a whole, began to appear. These, along with other organisations such as the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Academy of Sciences of Paris, were instrumental in the emergence of museums in the modern sense of the word.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, museums reassessed their role and developed new methods and techniques to better communicate with their visitors. For example, curators stepped out of their traditional roles as archivists and librarians to become designers of displays and educators. They also became managers, securing funding and overseeing staff to ensure that the institution fulfilled its goals.

Museums have also been founded for a wide variety of reasons, such as to stimulate tourism or encourage civic pride; to serve as recreation facilities or educational resources; to broadcast overtly ideological concepts; and in the case of certain political and military institutions, to serve as monuments that proclaimed a particular point of view. Despite these differences, all museums have the common goal of preserving and interpreting some material aspect of their society’s cultural consciousness.

The definition of a museum has been revised and approved by ICOM Define. The revised proposal reflects the major changes in museum roles, particularly in the areas of inclusivity, accessibility and sustainability. It will be implemented at the next ICOM Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague. More information is available in the ICOM Define space.