Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Definition of a Museum

The Definition of a Museum

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A museum is an institution that collects and displays objects, usually for the purpose of educating the public. There are many museums in the world and each one has its own unique collection and mission, yet all museums have some things in common. A museum’s definition is rather broad and allows for almost any kind of organization to claim the title. Most museums are non-profit or NGOs, but there are also for profit companies that operate museums and galleries. Regardless of the type of museum, most have an educational mission and strive to provide a variety of experiences for visitors.

The term museum has classical roots in Greek, where it was used to describe a place connected with the Muses and a site for philosophical discussion. It is only later that a focus on education became part of the museum’s mission. It is likely that the early museums were simply collections of interesting items that had been collected by an individual or family. As the collections grew, it made sense to display them and share them with the public.

While museums are often viewed as hushed halls with revered works of art and collections of dead insects, there is much more to them than that. Museums offer a glimpse of our human history and can be powerful places for educating the public about the past and helping people to think differently about the future.

Museums can be noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon or quiet spaces with revered words of art and exhibitions that transcend time. They can have a smell of old books or an air of dust and must. They can house sacred relics from the past or the most modern scientific specimens. They can host traveling exhibits or be permanent locations that only a few thousand people will ever see.

While the definition of museum is wide and varied, most major professional organizations from around the world agree that museums are institutions that protect and care for different types of collections. They have the responsibility of preserving these collections and sharing them with the public in ways that will educate them and give them a greater understanding of their culture. Museums are places that allow us to connect with the world through art, science, and other treasures from across the globe.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is currently in the process of defining what constitutes a museum. This new definition asks museums to cede some of their authority and move from a position of transmitting expert knowledge to fostering connections with the public. It is an important change and will have a great impact on the way museums function around the world. ICOM Define has outlined five proposals for the definition of museum and is inviting feedback on them from museums and other stakeholders. You can learn more about the process and the proposals here.