Museums are places where the intersections of collected objects, information about those objects, and experiences that people can have come together. This looseness of definition allows museums to do darn near anything. They can be hushed halls with that telltale musty smell or noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. They can display revered words of art or collections of living insects. They can send curators around the world to explore, learn, and collect. They can evoke feelings of reverie and inspiration or they can be sites of fierce debate and impassioned struggle. What makes a museum a museum is whatever the founders intended it to be.
The original ICOM definition of a museum states that “museums acquire, conserve, research, and communicate the primary tangible evidence of humankind and its environment.” While this is an admirable goal, the truth is that museums often fail to achieve it. They have a tendency to exhibit artifacts that may have dubious provenance, to talk about pieces from non-western cultures through a western lens, and to divorce their objects from cultural context.
Consequently, museums have been accused of racism, colonialism, and cultural imperialism. In recent years, some cities have turned to museums as an economic development and revitalization tool by constructing new ones to attract tourists or revive disused areas. For example, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain was constructed to spur economic activity in that city.
In addition, museums have been found to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavor, as well as to transmit overtly ideological concepts. This wide spectrum of purpose, paired with their remarkable diversity in form and content, has led to the development of a body of theory known as museology, which attempts to identify a clear role for museums in society.
Unfortunately, the adoption of this theory has not been a quick process. In part, this is due to the fact that the museum profession has traditionally been based on apprenticeship. This has resulted in the fact that many museum workers are highly skilled and experienced in one area, but have little knowledge of the broader context within which their museum operates.
As a consequence, we still find ourselves in a situation where most museum professionals believe that the responsibility of museums to educate lies largely with their education departments, when in fact it is a responsibility that should be shared by all parts of the museum organization. Bringing museums to the future will require a greater awareness of how they can increase the knowledge, happiness, and experience of all their visitors.
While it is difficult to have a single definition of a museum, we can agree that museums are institutions dedicated to preserving and interpreting the primary tangible evidence of humanity and its environment. They can take on any number of forms, but they are essentially the result of an innate human propensity to collect and inquire and to share those collections with others.