A museum isn’t just a building full of stuff, it’s an institution that acquires, conserves, researches and communicates the material evidence of humanity’s past. Its earliest incarnations are traceable to the human propensity to collect objects that appeal to our curiosity.
As museums developed, they became more specialized and focused on the preservation of art and cultural heritage in particular, and on sharing it with the public. The world’s best known museums boast iconic treasures such as the Mona Lisa and the Rosetta Stone, but many more exist across the globe, with their own unique treasures to share.
Museums are non-profit institutions in the service of society and culture. They are open to the public and offer a wide range of services such as exhibitions, collections management, educational activities, research and conservation. Many museums also serve as a catalyst for economic development, as is the case of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao which was built in order to revitalize a city that had fallen on hard times.
In an era when museums are under ever more pressure to be socially responsible, the new ICOM definition emphasizes diversity as one of the core values. It calls on museums to actively seek out diverse voices in the process of their work, and to include those voices in the making of their decisions. This is a big change, and it will take some time to fully implement.
The new definition also calls on museums to make their work accessible, not just for the people who can afford to visit them, but for everyone. It is a more expansive concept than the old ICOM definition, which was more narrow in its approach.
There are some caveats to this new definition, though. The museum community will still have to come up with strategies for addressing issues such as cost and access, but the emphasis on accessibility and inclusion will be a significant change for museums worldwide.
Ultimately, the new definition will help museums focus on their mission to be public institutions that serve society. As museums become more socially conscious, they will be able to grow their audiences and improve their impact on the global community. And that’s a good thing. What’s more, it will help to clarify the distinction between museums that are merely a collection of objects, and those which truly share our humanity. The latter are what matter to the majority of the world’s population. That’s why the new ICOM definition matters.