Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What is a Museum?

What is a Museum?


A museum is an institution that collects, cares for, displays, and interprets objects of cultural or scientific significance. Museums may also collect and research data, or act as an archive. A museum aims to provide visitors with opportunities for learning, reflection, discovery, and appreciation of human creativity and knowledge. Museums may be dedicated to specific historical periods or societies, art movements, natural history specimens, technological innovations, or a variety of other subjects.

The word museum derives from the Greek word museion, meaning “place of the Muses”. It was originally used to refer to a temple or building dedicated to the Muses, the patron goddesses of the arts and sciences in ancient Greece. The word came to be applied to a collection of art, science, or historic items in the 18th century, and eventually to institutions that exhibited them to the public. Today, the range of museums is vast and varied.

Museums are founded for a multitude of reasons: to serve as recreational facilities; as scholarly venues or resources for teaching and research; to contribute to the economy of a region by attracting tourists; to promote civic pride and nationalistic endeavour; and, in more extreme cases, to transmit overtly ideological concepts. They are bound by a common goal, however, in that they preserve and communicate some material aspect of society’s cultural consciousness to the public.

Despite their vast differences, all museums share the same foundational principles. The only content restrictions imposed upon them are those self imposed. The founders of a museum establish its by-laws and charter with lofty goals of public service in some specified field. Over time the museum may drift from those goals, but it won’t be allowed to wander too far afield for fear of public censure.

Most museums are structured as a directorate, curatorial staff, education and outreach department, and collections and exhibitions department. Larger museums may have additional divisions such as a research institute and/or a conservation department, along with an education center and/or a library. Frequently, museums are part of university or school systems and work with students in various degrees to teach them about the materials they contain.

The International Council of Museums’s (ICOM) has just completed the largest museum definition reformulation project in the organization’s history. The results of the first consultation round are now available for member museums to consult. The process was a tremendous success, with 126 Icom member committees representing over 500,000 museums worldwide contributing to the survey and to the development of the new definition. Members are encouraged to take time to review all the documentation related to this project and the previous museum definition proposals and to participate in the forthcoming rounds of consultations. The information provided by Icom members will be invaluable in the shaping of a new museum definition for the future. Thank you to everyone who participated! We look forward to your continued support. For more information about how to participate in upcoming consultations please visit the ICOM Define space.