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The Definition of a Museum

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Museums have a long history, springing from what might be seen as an innate human desire to collect and interpret the material aspects of our cultural heritage. They have evolved into a worldwide network of institutions that preserve and communicate objects and ideas to the benefit of society and the world. They are a crucial source of inspiration and education for both students and the general public. The word “museum” has classical origins, derived from the Greek Mouseion, meaning the seat of the Muses (or the place where they meet). In Roman times it was used to describe a philosophical institution or a place for contemplation.

In the modern sense, the term began to be used in 18th century Europe, as it was applied to collections of art and antiquities housed in buildings designed for these purposes. In the 19th century museums became more public as societies developed a more democratic view of the arts, and were founded on the principle that their collections should be accessible to all members of the public for study and enjoyment. The development of the museum as a public service was further accelerated after the end of World War II, when there was a clear need to educate an increasingly better-educated public about their past and present.

There are many definitions of a museum, and it is important that museums be aware of all the options in order to make the best choices for their missions. The most recent version of the ICOM definition states that a museum is “an institution established to conserve and to research, communicate and exhibit the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, through its collections, for the benefit of society and in fulfillment of its educational, cultural and scientific mission.”

While the current definition provides a strong foundation for the work of museums around the world, it is important that it also be updated regularly to reflect changes in the context in which we operate. This will require that ICOM Define, the Standing Committee for the museum definition, be responsive to the needs of its membership and the global community, while at the same time ensuring that this process is conducted in a transparent manner.

A new definition will allow museums to address challenges that have arisen over the last few years, such as the need to address issues of diversity and decolonization in their collections and interpretation practices. As illustrated by the famous scene in the movie Black Panther in which Napoleon I parades his treasures through Paris, museums have a tendency to treat artifacts with a nationalistic fervor, and to talk about objects from non-western cultures through a western lens, divorced from their cultural context.

The next step is to consult with the museums, museum professionals and public at large in order to develop a definition that reflects these new realities. This process will be initiated in 2021 and culminate in a proposal for a vote at the ICOM General Assembly in Prague in May 2022.