Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What Is a Museum?

What Is a Museum?

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A museum is an institution devoted to the display and preservation of culturally significant objects. Its collections usually focus on art, science, history, natural history, local or national history and other cultural subjects. It is a public institution, with exhibitions open to the general public and often offering educational or research programs. Museums have long been popular tourist attractions, with the top museums in the world attracting millions of visitors each year. The word museum comes from the Greek museion, meaning “seat of the Muses.” Museums can be found in all countries, with many of them having large and internationally renowned collections.

While there are many different definitions of what makes a museum, most major professional organizations agree that museums are places where the public can learn about culture and heritage through the study of objects. They also have the responsibility for the care, preservation, and interpretation of their collections.

Museums are a diverse group, reflecting the wide range of purposes and functions that they serve: to provide recreational facilities; to serve as scholarly venues or resources; to attract tourists and foster economic development in their areas; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavour; to transmit overtly ideological concepts; and to preserve important cultural property.

As early as the 18th century, museums began to emerge in a variety of forms around the globe. The first museums were private collections of interesting objects that were exhibited for the public’s benefit. These collections were held by individuals or groups such as the Charleston Library Society in the US, or by larger institutions such as the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, which began in 1786. By the late 19th century, it was becoming increasingly common for regional or national governments to establish museums expressly intended for the public good, building on the growing number of private collections that had been opened up to the public.

In the past, some museums have abused their power by collecting and interpreting artifacts that had dubious or even questionable origins, by talking about pieces from non-western cultures through a Western lens, or by ignoring indigenous knowledge about their own artifacts. These practices have been supported by the old ICOM definition, which defined a museum as an institution that acquires artifacts and specimens for its own use.

The new ICOM definition has changed this, recognizing that museums are intended for the public. It has been developed following extensive consultation with museum representatives from 126 ICOM’s National Committees, representing over 50,000 museums worldwide, and with the help of experts in the fields of education, cultural policy, diversity and access, and sustainable management. The new definition stresses that museums must include the public in their activities and be democratically accountable. This is not only a question of ethics, but it is also a crucial requirement for their survival. It is this democratic mandate that will ensure the future of museums, and make them truly fit for our globalizing world. Museums must evolve to meet the needs of this changing world, and this can only happen if museums know what they are, and why they exist.