Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What Is a Museum?

What Is a Museum?


A museum is a public institution where people preserve the past, probe the present and prepare the future. It can take many forms, from hushed halls with musty smells to noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. It can display revered works of art or contain collections of living insects. It can be found in a building or on the edge of a desert or in a dry-docked ship. It can educate or entertain, but in most cases it does both.

As diverse as museums are, they are united by their common purpose: to preserve and interpret something that represents the cultural consciousness of a society. As such, they can reveal a great deal about the society they serve and are bound by a set of principles that guide their decisions. This definition is designed to be a framework within which the diverse practices and theories that make up the field of museum practice can operate. It does not attempt to resolve the issues that abound in the field, such as those related to decolonization, repatriation and restitution, or to impose a single model for museums. Rather, it sets out the fundamental features that distinguish museums from other collecting organizations and defines them in terms of the ways they collect, conserve, display and educate.

Museums have been founded for a variety of purposes: to act as recreational facilities, scholarly venues or educational resources; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavor; or even to transmit overtly ideological concepts. They are founded to serve a range of public interests and, as such, they reflect the wide diversity of human culture.

For this reason, there are many different theories about what a museum is. Some are based on broad, general, non-specific assertions about the nature of museums and how they work; others are rooted in specific theories about what constitutes a collection, what makes it valuable or how a museum is to be organised.

While many of these theories differ, they all seek to understand museums as organisations that exist to serve their audiences and that are based on trust in the communities they serve. This definition reflects this trust in the community by making the most important change to its previous definition: it introduces the idea that museums are places for people. The introduction of this concept is subtle, but significant. It is designed to counteract the hegemony of the expert and acknowledges the fundamental need for museums to be engaged with their communities in order to serve them.

This new definition was developed through an extensive outreach effort in which Icom’s committees reached out to museums in all corners of the world. During an 18-month period and over four distinct rounds of consultation, the Icom Define committee spoke with representatives from 126 of Icom’s national committees—a total of more than 50,000 members. This was the largest outreach project in the history of Icom. Museums from Africa, Latin America and Asia were particularly active in shaping this new definition.