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The Museum of the 21st Century and the Museum Definition

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A museum is an intersection of collected things, information about them and experiences that people can have. It is a broad definition, which allows museums to do almost anything. Museums range from art galleries to science centres and zoological gardens. They can host exhibitions on a wide variety of subjects, from Frida Kahlo to Pink Floyd and Winnie the Pooh. They can display ancient Egyptian treasures or modern Chinese paintings. Museums are often culturally or historically important and hold huge collections of objects. They can be very large, like the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg which holds 2 million works of art in its magnificent connected palaces or very small, such as the National Gallery of Modern Art in London which has 170,000 objects on display across 13 exhibition spaces.

As the world faces massive demographic and economic changes, museums must adjust to changing expectations. The question of what museums are for, what values they hold and what futures they aspire to has generated intense debate. The answers to these questions are complex and vary according to the different historical contexts of museum-making.

The ICOFOM process – drawing on the research of a network that encompasses the International Council of Museums (ICOM) National Committees, International Committees, Regional Alliances and Affiliated Organisations – has sought to understand these differences and aspires to bring them into a global context. It has done so through the work of two Task Forces, one on the “museum of the 21st century” and the other on the “museum definition”.

ICOFOM’s research is helping to bring a rich diversity of perspectives to the consultation on the Museum Definition that will take place within ICOM this year. The first round of consultations have already resulted in a range of valuable insights.

These insights are informed by research that reflects on the past balanced with concerns for the present and aspirations for the future. It is a research that also seeks to go beyond the remit of a purely academic and Anglophone discussion of the museum, taking account of emerging scholarship in French, Brazilian Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, Asian languages and other non-English-speaking contexts.

The results of the first round of consultations indicate that, in a world where museums are increasingly expected to meet societal needs, it may be necessary to review the ICOM definition. The revision of the museum definition will require a careful balance between retaining aspects that have been proven to be effective and making adjustments to accommodate new needs and aspirations. The ICOM Standing Committee on the Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials has been tasked with this work. The members of this committee have designed a methodology going forward, based on greater transparency and the careful listening of all proposals. It is hoped that the outcome of this process will be an inclusive, democratic and open approach to a new definition for the future. The work of ICOFOM will play an essential role in this.