Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The New Definition of Museum

The New Definition of Museum

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Many people dismiss museums as hushed spaces that have a musty smell, but the world’s greatest galleries make history and culture come alive. They are places to learn from, but also to challenge what you think you know. They are places to be awed by dazzling architectural design and marvel at transcendent exhibitions. They are places to visit and explore, but also to revisit and return to time and again. And they are spaces to make us reconsider what we value as a society, and how we can create a better future.

Museums are founded for a wide range of purposes: to serve as recreational facilities; to provide scholarly venues; to promote civic pride and nationalistic endeavour; to transmit overtly ideological concepts; to attract tourism to an area; or even to revitalize dilapidated industrial cities, as in the case of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. Yet, despite the diversity of their purposes, all museums share a fundamental purpose: to preserve and interpret artifacts that are considered important by a community.

As part of the Icom Define project, 126 Icom National Committees were consulted extensively in four rounds of consultation to create a new definition for museum. This intentionally simple new definition identifies the defining features of museum. It focuses on the purpose of museums to preserve the past, probe the present and prepare for the future; the tools that museums use to carry out their mission are identified as collecting, exhibiting and educating; and the organization that is responsible for carrying out these functions is a not-for-profit, non-governmental body governed by its members.

This new definition removes the word “profit” from the not-for-profit clause and adds a more inclusive, expansive reference to people which subtly addresses the MDPP’s concern about the asymmetries of power and wealth and supports the unity of expert museum knowledge with collaboration and shared commitment, responsibility and authority with their communities. It also includes the concept of socially engaged museum practice to further expand the roles of museums in their communities and their wider global society.

The new definition also clarifies that museums may collect objects in a variety of ways, from purchase and trade to gifts and bequests. It makes clear that museums can exhibit their own collections as well as partnering with others to sponsor traveling or other kinds of exhibitions. It also allows but does not require museums to address climate crisis and the environment, and other societal concerns that have been raised in Consultation 2 and 3. In short, this definition offers museums a broad runway for their futures. This is a new definition for a new age.