Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The New ICOM Definition of a Museum

The New ICOM Definition of a Museum


When most people think of museums, they probably picture a building full of paintings hanging on the walls or quiet halls filled with relics. But there is much more to museums than that. Museums preserve objects and artifacts, learn about them, and then share that knowledge with the public. This work takes a lot of time, money and effort. It is why they need curators to help them manage their collections.

Museums also serve as cultural bridges between different people and places, providing access to the past for those who may not be able to travel to see it in person. The renowned Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy or the Museum of Modern Art in New York City are great examples. But there are many more museums like that around the world.

Besides being educational and engaging, museums can be a powerful tool for economic development and revitalization. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain is a good example of how museums can spur regeneration in struggling postindustrial cities.

Museums have a long history of collecting and interpreting objects that reflect humanity’s complex relationship with the natural world, and with each other. Evidence of this can be found in early collections such as those made during Paleolithic burials, or by the votive offerings in temples and palaces throughout the world.

The old ICOM definition of a museum read: “A non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development open to the public which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” While the new definition retains these key elements, it calls upon museums to cede institutional authority to their communities and shift their goal from transmitting expert knowledge to fostering dialogue and connection.

It also requires museums to rethink their structures and practices and embrace the diversity of the world they are a part of. This can be a challenge for some museums that were built on the premise that they are separate from their local community and must serve a global audience. However, there are many examples of museums that have successfully embraced the new ICOM definition.

The new definition was passed at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (Icom) in Prague today after a lengthy consultation process with National Committees, International Committees, Regional Alliances and Affiliated Organisations. This first round of consultation yielded richly diverse responses that will be used to inform future rounds. The results will be published in the near future.