Museums are a special kind of building — they house treasures, art and history that are often of great value, but also require the utmost care to preserve them. Museums are usually open to the public, with a fee for entry, and they are not run for profit, like galleries that sell artwork. Museums vary in size and scope from large institutions with thousands of artifacts to smaller, locally owned ones that focus on local culture.
The word museum derives from the ancient Greek verb museo, meaning to admire or marvel. In 17th century Europe, the term came to be used to describe collections of curiosities, such as Ole Worm’s collection in Copenhagen or the array at John Tradescant’s Lambeth home, later renamed the Ashmolean Museum. The collection at the latter was dubbed a museum because it grew so large that a dedicated building was required to house it.
In more recent times, museums have come under increased scrutiny for a range of issues, from racist displays to the treatment of indigenous peoples in their collections. In addition, a number of museums have been accused of failing to address the issue of decolonisation and repatriation of objects that were taken by imperial powers during colonial rule. These challenges have led to calls for new rules to guide how museums operate and communicate with their communities.
A number of international organisations are involved in setting these standards and best practices, including the International Council of Museums (ICOM), American Alliance of Museums (AAM), European Union of Monuments and Sites (EUROPEUM) and the Association of Australian Museums. These groups set out a number of principles and guidelines for museums, including fostering diversity and avoiding the objectification of any group or individual.
As the world’s population grows, museums must find ways to become more inclusive and transparent with their communities. The new definition developed by ICOM will hopefully help them do this. However, some voices have criticised the new definition, particularly for its lack of mention of decolonisation and repatriation.
It’s not easy to define a museum, because the concept has so many layers. It’s not just a building, but a collection of objects within that building that have been collected over time for their beauty and significance. They are protected by curators, who make sure they’re preserved and displayed for us to enjoy today.
Museums have a huge responsibility to protect and share these treasures with their communities, and it’s no secret that this isn’t always easy. But we hope that the new ICOM definition will help to foster more open and inclusive museum practices around the globe.