Matagorda County Museum Our Blog What Is a Museum?

What Is a Museum?

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A museum is a cultural institution that collects, preserves and displays art, history, culture and/or natural science for the purpose of education, research, public enjoyment and inspiration.

Museums come in many forms and serve diverse purposes, from preserving rare and ancient artifacts to serving as a source of civic pride or nationalistic fervor, to overtly ideological concepts. Museums are often referred to as “living collections” because they continually change and evolve, reflecting the needs of their communities and the ever-changing world we live in.

Whether it’s an exhibition of lunar photographs or the dazzling works of renaissance sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, the best museums have one thing in common—they inspire. In fact, there are plenty of visitors (Falk calls them “rechargers”) who specifically seek out museums for this very experience.

In addition to offering inspirational experiences, most museums offer educational opportunities for visitors. While many museums still struggle with the concept of educating adults, there’s no doubt that the museum field has made major strides in its approach to adult learning and audience engagement over the last few decades.

The new ICOM definition pushes museums to consider diversity in all aspects of their operations, including their collections and interpretation practices. It also requires museums to consider the communities they serve and be more active in their outreach efforts. Many museums have trouble embracing this notion of their role in educating, and feel that they are too “school-like” or child-like to be considered a “museum.” They may also find it difficult to brand themselves as educational institutions, since they often feel this conjures up images of the stuffy, institutional museums we all know and love.

Museums are often criticized for their treatment of objects from non-western cultures. They are criticized for the way they display these items, the language that they use to describe them (like “heritage of humanity”), and their lack of dialogue with indigenous peoples. The old ICOM definition supported these practices by stating that museums “acquire” artifacts. Merriam-Webster defines acquire as “to get as one’s own; to take into possession or control.” This was problematic because it divorced the object from its cultural context.

Special exhibitions are displays that are only available for a short amount of time. A museum’s website will usually have a page that describes the present and future special exhibitions.

This article is the first of six that explores the definition of museum based on the rich responses from ICOM’s Consultation 1. Stay tuned! Next up: Museums and the New Digital Landscape. The museum sector has been evolving rapidly in recent years, and the changes will only accelerate as society continues to move into new modes of living and the demands on museums change. Stay tuned for the next edition of this series, which will examine how museum professionals are navigating these new challenges.