A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Museums are open to the public and are committed to being accessible and inclusive. They operate and communicate ethically and professionally, and they foster diversity and sustainability.
Museums preserve the primary evidence of humankind’s interactions with the world. They communicate this history to their visitors through exhibitions, publications and online resources. The origins of the twin concepts of preservation and interpretation lie deep in human nature. The idea of collecting and displaying objects has been around for thousands of years, with collections found in Paleolithic burials and early portable inscriptions. The concept of museums as institutions dedicated to preserving and communicating this evidence has grown over time.
The word museum has classical roots, deriving from the Greek mouseion, meaning “place connected with the Muses,” the patron divinities of art and learning in ancient Greece. The term grew to mean a place where the arts and sciences were cultivated and learned.
By the 18th century, the field had consolidated into museums of natural science and historical and cultural artifacts. During this period, museum theory began to develop, but the institutions struggled with identity and purpose, and were often run as government services. A schism between scholarly and popular interests developed, and professional organizations emerged to coordinate, promote and advance museums.
Museums are involved in conservation breeding, habitat preservation, public education, and field conservation to ensure survival for many of the planet’s endangered species. They also conduct or facilitate research to advance scientific knowledge about these animals and their environment. This knowledge is used for the conservation and management of the animal population, which helps to improve the quality of life of humans and animals alike.
In this episode, Natalie reflects on her career in the museum field and shares some of the ups and downs of this exciting, yet challenging profession. For example, it can be difficult to find a job as a curator in rural areas and getting a fair salary can be a challenge. Nevertheless, she says that it is still worth it because of the importance of museums to people around the globe.
As an ICOM Define committee member, Natalie is working to help shape the new definition of a museum. It aims to shift from the old paradigm of acquisition, which means ownership and control over items, to collection, which implies a collaborative approach. It also aims to push museums to consider diverse perspectives in their collections, interpretation and community engagement.
This is a work in progress, and Natalie is excited to see the final version of this new ICOM definition when it is approved at the Icom Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague. She is especially hopeful that it will help to move the field forward in its commitment to inclusion, accessibility and sustainability.
For more information on the process of developing the new ICOM definition, you can read the report titled The Way Forward, published by Icom Define.