Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What is a Museum?

What is a Museum?



The word museum describes a non profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage; it is open to the public. It is a place that fosters sustainability and diversity and that operates and communicates ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities. This definition has been a subject of intense debate in the last few years, particularly since Icom published it in 2019.

In the past, ICOM had three different definitions: a “non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society” (1960); a “museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of people and its development that acquires, conserves, studies, researches, communicates and exhibits the primary tangible evidence of humankind’s cultural and natural history” (1974); and a more precise definition in 2007, which identified what museums are for as being the “material proof that culture exists, probes the present and prepares the future for the benefit of mankind”.

These past definitions did not, however, address a number of significant issues that museums face today. In particular, decolonisation, repatriation and restitution were not addressed by any of them. The new ICOM definition includes the “people” component which, as Jetty Sandahl points out, allows and encourages attention to be paid to a range of social issues in museums. It also opens the purpose of any museum to national, regional and local determination. It is a definition that overcomes the Eurocentric control of the past and, in doing so, frees museums for their true purposes.

Many museums, especially art museums, are also educational institutions. They advance scholarship in their specialized field of study, such as art history or botany, keep up with the work of other museums in their field, and make their collections available for research by scholars. They teach students in schools, colleges and universities. And they organize a variety of programs and activities that bring the museum to the community.

Museums are often established on historic sites, and their exhibits focus on that site’s history. Examples include the Historic Hudson River Village, the New York Historical Society, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

When museums are founded, they often set lofty goals of public service in a specified field. Over the decades these goals may be stretched and widened or narrowed. But they are usually not loosened from the original intentions of the founders.

A major goal of the ICOM committee working on a new definition is to free museums from their own self imposed limitations. For example, when Napoleon I toured Europe and seized the treasures of great cities, he wanted to create what he called “museums of national history” where he could show them to his people in their own language and context. The aim was to foster nationalistic fervor. The same was true of the great colonial museums in Africa.