From hushed halls reeking of must and stale air to bustling centers with children running hither and thither, museums come in many forms. But they all have one thing in common: they hold the primary tangible evidence of humankind’s past, present and future. Museums collect, care for, preserve, and interpret those materials, then make them available to people of all ages for study, inspiration, and enjoyment.
The twin concepts of preservation and interpretation are the heart of a museum’s mission, and they have deep roots in human nature. Across cultures, there is a predisposition to collect items of beauty or interest, and to share those collections with others. Evidence of the first museum-like institutions appears in Paleolithic burials, and the idea of collecting art and natural curiosities as public goods was firmly established in the Greek and Roman Empires through votive offerings in temples and royal palaces. In the 19th century, Napoleon I confiscated art objects from cities as he conquered Europe, and these collections eventually helped fuel the development of modern museums.
Museums have been founded for a variety of reasons, such as to serve as recreational facilities, scholarly venues or educational resources; to promote civic pride and nationalistic endeavour; to transmit overtly ideological concepts; and to provide economic benefits to their host communities. Their diverse purposes reflect the varied needs of society, and museums exhibit remarkable diversity in form, content and even function.
Today, museums span all cultural fields and offer a wide range of experiences that appeal to people from all backgrounds. Some of these experiences are elitist, while others are accessible to everyone and often free of charge. Museums vary in size, and their collections may be as varied as the world itself. Some of the most famous museums in the world are renowned for their architecture, while others stand out for their curated collections or transcending exhibitions. Some museums, like the Alamo in Texas, are dedicated to preserving and honoring the history of a particular event or area. Others, like the Giddings Stone Mansion in Brenham or the Emancipation Park in Houston, are devoted to preserving and protecting historic buildings and their related collections of art and furnishings.
While there is no definitive definition of a museum, international professional organizations offer different perspectives on the essence of a museum and its role in society. Those organizations have worked hard to foster a new international consensus on the definition of museum. Its core concept challenges museums to cede some of their institutional authority and shift their objective from transmission of expert knowledge to fostering dialogue and connection.
This article was produced by the Museum Association of Ireland in partnership with ICOM Define, the organization responsible for drafting a new museum definition that will be voted on at the International Council of Museums Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague 2022. The final version of the definition will be a result of extensive consultation with museums and other stakeholders throughout 2021-22.