Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What Is a Museum?

What Is a Museum?


The word “museum” conjures images of hushed halls that radiate a musty smell and revered words of art, but museums can be much more than that. They can be noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon, or they may send curators around the world to explore, learn and collect. Some are national treasures with lines out the door, while others are hidden away behind the scenes. The museum can be a place to see great paintings, or it might have an entire wing dedicated to the history of science. And then there are the museums that include living insects and plants (that would be zoological or botanical museums).

A museum is an institution, whether public or private, that holds, conserves, researches, interprets and displays tangible and intangible heritage for education, enjoyment and inspiration. It is a permanent, not-for-profit organization in the service of society and must be accessible to all. It operates and communicates ethically, professionally, with the involvement of communities and promotes diversity and sustainability.

This definition is fairly broad and includes places that many people might not expect to be considered a museum, like zoological and botanical gardens and aquariums. But most museums do display cultural or artistic objects.

Those objects can be anything from ancient Greek sculpture to a modern painting, and the museum can focus on one particular time or region of the globe, or it could encompass all of human history and culture. Some museums even allow visitors to touch and hold the objects in their collections.

Museums are often very big, with thousands of objects that are housed in the collection and only a fraction of them on exhibit at any given time. The Louvre, for example, has more than 2 million items in its collection. This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but it also has classical sculpture and a wing of Renaissance paintings, along with an Egyptian and an Etruscan wing.

One of the challenges for a museum is how to display these works in a way that is informative, educational and interesting. This is not easy, especially in the age of social media when everything seems to be about instant gratification and short attention spans. But a museum can use new technology to draw people in, including virtual reality and interactive exhibits that bring visitors into the middle of events from our history.

The most popular museums in the world have long lines to get in, but they also offer a rich and varied experience for the visitor. The Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, with more than 11 million visitors in 2019. The British Museum has over eight million objects, but only a small percentage are on display at any given time because there simply isn’t enough space to show them all. But it’s a very impressive collection, and the museum is continually making efforts to improve the visitors’ experience. It recently instituted a museum passport, and has been experimenting with setting limits on the number of daily visitors to allow people to spend more time enjoying its wonders.