Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What Is a Museum?

What Is a Museum?

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A museum (pronounced mew-ZEE’m) is an institution that preserves objects of cultural and historical importance, usually for public display. There are many different types of museums, from large collections in major cities spanning numerous categories to small museums covering a single location or subject. In addition, many museums specialize further, for example in a particular type of art or in a specific period of history.

Museums may be owned by governmental bodies or private entities, and are often non-profit, meaning they do not make any money from their admission fees. Museums are also distinguished from galleries, which engage in the sale of artworks. Museums are considered to be educational and are frequently visited by school groups and the general public, especially when the subjects of the exhibits are of interest to a broad audience.

Objects that form the core of museum collections come from a wide variety of sources. Some are loaned from other museums or institutions, while others are collected by the museum itself. Most museums have an ‘Acquisitions Department’ or equivalent, whose staff are charged with procuring new items to add to the collection. Museums can also acquire materials by purchase or trade, and receive donations and bequests from individuals and organizations.

In recent years, many museums have embraced their role as economic engines, building new buildings and opening up in existing ones to attract visitors and stimulate local economies. Examples of this include the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and other museum-led revitalization initiatives in post industrial cities around the world.

As well as their educational and societal roles, museums provide a sense of place to their communities. This can be as simple as putting up a plaque to mark the location of the museum or it can be much more involved, such as the case with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which was built to help celebrate the relationship between Britain and China in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

While there are different opinions on what a museum is, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) is currently fostering a process of consultation to find a new definition of a museum that will be voted on at the ICOM General Conference in 2022.

A key principle of the new definition is that museums are not for profit, and they act as trustees of their collections on behalf of society. This means that museums have a responsibility to share their collections with diverse communities, and this is reflected in the methodology being used for the consultation process.

Museums are a record of our past, and so they need to be protected, conserved and cared for for generations to come. This is a complex task, and it is one that is facilitated by the work of museum professionals. This includes curators and other staff, volunteers, supporters and donors, and of course, visitors. The ICOM definition reflects this, and calls on museums to be more transparent about their work and to work in partnership with communities.