Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What Is a Museum?

What Is a Museum?

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A museum (mju:z, mz) is a public institution that collects objects of significance and preserves them for the purposes of education, research and entertainment. Museums usually host exhibits that are designed to interpret the objects and share their stories with a broad audience, though many museums are focused more narrowly on specific subjects or geographic areas.

Museums are often considered to be an important part of a nation’s culture, and the most famous museums in the world attract millions of visitors every year. The history of museums is long and varied, with some originating in the form of private collections and others developed to serve a community’s educational needs.

The International Council of Museums defines a museum as “an organization, permanent or temporary, 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.”

A large number of institutions qualify as a museum under this definition. The most common types are art museums, science museums, natural history museums and zoological museums. Art museums tend to be more prominent than the other museum types, and are generally defined by a collection of artistic works. Natural and science museums are more specialized, with the focus on collecting objects of scientific interest and making them available to the public.

Some museums don’t collect objects at all and instead rely on other means of storytelling or information dissemination to earn their reputation. This includes a few very memorable museums, like the Griffith Observatory and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, that offer experiences that are so rich and meaningful that they transcend the lack of artifacts on display.

As museum collections grow, so do the responsibilities of those who manage them. Museums are staffed by a wide range of professionals including curators, conservators, historians, librarians, researchers, archivists, interpretive planners, educators, designers, and other support staff.

Museums also employ a variety of management strategies and business models. The most common are not-for-profit and governed by an independent board of trustees. This model allows museums to be flexible in their mission and responsive to changing needs, but it is not the only option. Some museums are created as private trusts, which allow donors to gain tax benefits by contributing their assets to the museum.

Some museums, especially those with huge donor support, operate much differently than smaller museums. They have big budgets to bring in exhibitions with measurable marketing benefits, and they can afford to prioritize bringing in new audiences over preserving the legacy of their existing collections. Smaller museums can’t hide behind this type of compartmentalization, and are better able to meet their communities where they are. This can be a challenge, but it is one that many museums rise to meet with success. Changing the museum conversation requires new ways of thinking about what we do. And that is an exciting prospect!