In short, a museum is an intersection between collected things, information about those things and experiences that people can have. It is also the name given to institutions that hold collections and are open for public viewing, whether these are art galleries or natural history museums. Most museums are non-profit and NGOs, although some for-profit companies operate museum-like spaces as well.
Traditionally, a museum was an institution to store objects of great artistic or cultural significance. These objects could be found in nature, from the past or from elsewhere in the world. They were kept in treasuries, palaces or special buildings and displayed to the general public for a fee. During the time of the Greek and Roman empires, the collection of objects that might have religious, magical, economic, aesthetic or historical value or be curiosities was commonplace. These were usually housed in temples, often in specially built treasuries.
As the modern era grew, so too did the need to preserve and display cultural heritage. As technology improved, it became possible to transport and conserve many works of art and other objects more easily and cheaply. Thus began the development of what are now referred to as museums.
In the modern sense, a museum is an institution dedicated to collecting, conserving, researching and interpreting tangible and intangible heritage; it is an open and inclusive institution in the service of society, and it operates ethically and with sustainability in mind.
The museum as an institution is distinct from the library with which it has often been compared, for it houses primary tangible evidence of humankind’s culture and environment. Museums collect and conserve these items in a context of public exhibition, education, research and conservation.
It is not unusual to find several museums within a city, town or region. They may be dedicated to specific disciplines such as science or art, or they might have a broader mandate to cover all cultures of the world and all times.
Museums have been found in all types of locations, including parks, historic sites, buildings, ships and private homes. They are also found in the form of mobile exhibits. The most famous and largest of them are housed in a single building, such as the British Museum with its eight million objects.
Besides housing their own collections, most museums lend their artifacts to other organizations and individuals for temporary exhibitions. This type of exhibition is known as a special exhibition and it is shown for weeks or months at a venue. Museums may also have an ongoing or permanent exhibition that is on display for the entire museum. This is called a permanent exhibition.
A museum’s staff, which is also known as a museum community, includes curators, conservators, educators, researchers and other professionals. They work together to make the museum accessible and understandable for visitors. In addition, they support the museum’s mission by promoting its programs and services through advertising, publicity and fundraising. They also serve as advisors to the board of directors and set standards for the museum by developing policies on governance, management, ethics and collections care.