The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most-visited museum
Can you define “museum”? Are you sure? The answer might depend on where you look or who you ask. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “museum” as “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” In previous years, the definition accepted by the International Council of Museums (ICOM)—a group with 40,000 members representing about 20,000 institutions worldwide—centered on acquiring, conserving, researching, and exhibiting the “tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” A new generation of curators are promoting a definition that expands the mission of a museum. They emphasize inclusivity, democracy, and dialogue to foster human dignity and social justice, among other progressive goals.
Claiming that its definition of the role museums play had become outdated, ICOM’s leadership appointed a committee to find an alternative definition. In response to its call for definitions, the committee received more than 250 submissions from members around the world. One American’s proposal called museums “stewards of culture,” while another from Poland suggested that museums protect “the material and intellectual life of the past in order to exist in the future.”
After considering the submissions, the ICOM settled on a proposed redefinition. It emphasizes museums as “inclusive . . . spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums . . . collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”
Not everyone is a fan of the new definition. One redefinition committee member resigned in June, saying that the proposal doesn’t “reflect the discussions held over two years.” Other ICOM members are concerned over leaving out such words as “institution” and “education.” It turns out that finding broad agreement on the meaning of a six-letter word isn’t so simple. What’s next? At a September 7 meeting in Kyoto, Japan, ICOM members decided to postpone the vote on the new museum definition.
Image credit: © Yulia Belousova/Dreamstime
- The Term “Museum” May Be Getting Redefined
This article explains the controversy over a new definition of “museum.”
(Source: Smithsonian.com, August 20, 2019)
- Museum Definition
This ICOM press release outlines the project to redefine “museum.”
(Source: International Council of Museums; accessed September 18, 2019)
- The Extraordinary General Conference Postpones the Vote on a New Museum Definition
This press release updates ICOM’s process for redefining museums’ mission.
(Source: International Council of Museums, September 7, 2019)
- The World Is Better Because of Museums
Museum professionals from across the globe share stories about how museums play a vital role in society.
(Source: American Alliance of Museums, December 7, 2018)
- People Trust Museums More Than Newspapers: Here Is Why That Matters Right Now
Museums have the superpower of public trust.
(Source: ColleenDilen.com, April 26, 2017)
- What Is the Future of the Museum?
Ten curators reveal how they envision the museum 25 years from now.
(Source: Frieze.com, November 25, 2015)
- The Hoax Museum Blog
Something museum-ish just for fun.
(Source: Hoaxes.org; accessed September 18, 2019)