What Defines a Museum?

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Claiming that its definition of the role museums play had become outdated, ICOM’s leadership appointed a committee to find an alternative definition.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

Related Links:

Comments are closed.