Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What is a Museum?

What is a Museum?

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A museum (pronounced muh-ZEE) is an institution that acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, entertainment, and enjoyment. It is also a non-profit, permanent institution that is open to the public and which is governed by an autonomous body.

A great number of museums have been established for very different reasons, from promoting tourism or cultural awareness to spreading nationalistic or civic pride. Their diverse collections/artifacts and varied purposes reveal the vast diversity of human culture and history. While museums vary in size and scope, all are bound by their common mission of preserving and interpreting a material aspect of a society’s cultural consciousness.

The word ‘museum’ originates from the ancient Greek mouseion, meaning seat of the Muses or place of contemplation. The earliest recorded use of the term was in reference to Ptolemy’s Museum at Alexandria in the 3rd century BC, which included a library and college of scholars and acted as a prototype university. The Romans later coined the term museo for museums of arts, but it was not until the 17th century that the modern definition was established.

Over time, museums evolved into institutions dedicated to the acquisition and preservation of artifacts and the sharing of their knowledge for the benefit of a diverse audience. Museums have also diversified into areas like science, natural history, and children’s museums, among many others. Many museums now include live theatre and even virtual reality as part of their offerings, pushing the boundaries of what a museum is and does.

Museums have become increasingly popular, with some attracting millions of visitors per year. In recent years, several cities have turned to museums as a way of revitalizing their downtown districts. One of the most notable examples is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, which was built as a way to attract tourists and revitalize the economy of this postindustrial city.

As a result of this expansion, museum collections are growing and evolving all the time. The need to protect these treasures is increasing, as well as the desire to share them with the general public. This is driving some museums to evolve into theatre, embracing immersive design and other forms of experiential learning.

Some museums are located on historic sites, such as a castle or an old house, and have collections that are directly related to that site’s history. Other museums are in buildings that were constructed specifically to contain a collection, such as the Alamo Museum in Texas or the Giddings Stone Mansion in Brenham.

A great deal of work has been done to define the terms museum and what makes it distinct from other types of cultural centers, such as galleries or libraries. The most recent definition was adopted at the ICOM Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague in 2022. It was developed through an extensive process of consultation with the Museum Representatives of Icom’s 126 national committees and regional alliances, over four rounds of discussion.