Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What Is a Museum?

What Is a Museum?

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Whether a museum is an exhibition space, an archaeological site, a house, an old ship or a church, it must be able to preserve, research, exhibit and communicate. It must be non-profit, open to the public and offer varied experiences for education, reflection, enjoyment and knowledge sharing. It should be a place of diversity and inclusiveness, operating ethically and fostering sustainability. These are the key elements of a new definition, adopted by ICOM in 2019 after a major outreach project that involved over 50,000 members. The Standing Committee for the Museum Definition (also known as MDPP) and ICOM Define consulted widely with national committees, international committees, regional alliances and affiliated organizations around the world.

The new definition, “A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development that collects, conserves, researches, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage and provides a place for learning through experience. It is open to the public and is inclusive and sustainable” has been widely endorsed as representing some of the major trends in museums worldwide today. It is, however, not a comprehensive list, and it is not intended to limit the roles of museums or to dictate what a museum should do.

It is important that the definition recognizes the need to preserve and share the past, but it also acknowledges that there are many ways of doing this and that there are vast differences in values, assumptions and conditions that exist in different parts of the world. The definition also identifies the purpose of a museum as being to advance society, but it does not mandate what this should be. It leaves room for divergent theories and the need to balance these at the same time.

Another shift that has been a result of the process of developing this new definition is the role of the visitor and the idea that a museum is a space for community participation. This has meant a move away from an elitist vision of what is a museum. In addition, it has meant a shift in time, moving from the classical notion of preserving the past to a more general interest in social issues.

In the early years of ICOM, the prevailing definition was that a museum is a “not-for-profit institution devoted to collecting and exhibiting artifacts in order to educate and enrich society.” This was later modified to include the preservation of sites, and more recently it has included intangible heritage. The new definition reflects the need for ICOM to have a more inclusive, global and democratic approach in its work. It is a very welcome step forward, but it is only a beginning and the museum profession still has much to do to meet this challenge. The next stage will be to define how a museum can fulfill this new, more expansive role in a way that is practical and achievable for all. This will require a much more collaborative and interdisciplinary process.