If you think about it, museum is a very broad term and a lot of different things can be included under the umbrella. The most common view is a building that houses treasures of history for all to see. The most famous of all is the Louvre in Paris, which has Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as its star attraction. But there are many more museums out there that have equally fascinating collections, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the British Museum in London.
The museum as we know it today is actually a fairly recent development, though archaeological and historical evidence indicates that the concepts of preservation and interpretation have always been important to humans. The development of the museum probably began with people assembling objects for religious, magical, economic, aesthetic or social reasons, and then communicating these findings to others. The earliest examples of this practice can be found in Paleolithic burials and ancient Mesopotamian cave and mobiliary art. In the Roman and Greek empires, temples housed collections of objects for these purposes. As these collections became more common, people began to display them in dedicated buildings for the benefit of all.
A museum usually has a staff of curators who care for the objects and arrange them to be displayed, along with an education department that works to interpret the collections for visitors. The director of a museum is usually in charge of all of this, and is often accountable to a higher authority, such as a government department or a board of trustees. Larger museums also typically have research divisions that are involved with studies pertaining to their collection.
One of the key distinctions in the current definition is that it emphasizes that museums do not own the items they possess – they are held in trust for society. This distinguishes museums from private collectors who own their collections and have the power to dispose of them as they please.
A second important distinction is the change in terminology from “acquisition” to “collecting.” According to Merriam-Webster, to acquire means to take as one’s own; it is about asserting ownership and control. The current ICOM definition emphasizes that collecting is about bringing together objects to share with the public, not about owning or controlling them.
Museums are also custodians of time, and they preserve and record the history of our species for future generations. It is because of the work of museums that we can learn about the changes in human culture and our environment throughout the ages, from the art of the ancients to the modern art of the 20th century.
There are many views on what a museum is, and the definition has changed over the years as museums have grown and developed. We look forward to a further discussion on the issue at the next ICOM General Conference in 2022. In the meantime, we encourage you to review the methodologies and reports for this project, which are available in this space.