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Back to Basics: Defining the Museum


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mu-se-um [myoo-zeeuhm] noun – A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment. See also Who Knows?

Tens of thousands around the world claim to be one, covering subjects as varied as ancient civilizations, luxury cars, prisons, fashion, art, and umbrella covers. So, this begs the question: What exactly is a museum? The above definition is from ICOM. It is comprehensive to be sure, but is it complete? Let’s look at some other definitions of museum to find out…

  • An institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value; also: a place where objects are exhibited. (Merriam-Webster)
  • Public institution dedicated to preserving and interpreting the primary tangible evidence of humans and their environment … In Roman times, the word referred to a place devoted to scholarly occupation … In the 20th century, museums have broadened their roles as educational facilities, sources of leisure activity, and information centers. (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia)
  • Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard, and make accessible artifacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society. (UK Museums Association)
  • An institution for the assembly and public display of any kind of collection, especially one of rare and/or educational value.
  • [I]n Greece, originally a place connected with the Muses, sometimes in a religious sense, but more usually as a place where the arts and learning were cultivated. The museum came to mean a place of education, connected with the Muses.
  • Over the centuries their functions and role have changed, although at their heart is the preservation and display of collections.
  • Museums define relationships between life, community, the nation, and the world through the interpretation of objects, experience, and the environment … The sheer variety of museums evinces the need to address different constituencies and to engage different interpretations of historic events that recover the multiplicity of cultures that constitute American identity.
  • Valuable ideas or inner gifts that need to be dusted off and brought out into the world are suggested by a museum. How the dreamer relates to a museum may reflect the ways in which they relate to their material possessions.
  • A building or institution devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational interpretation of objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value.
  • Its exhibitions tell us stories, adding to the ever-changing, sometimes contentious meanings we Americans give to history, to culture, to identity … The American museum today, more than at any time over the past century, is a place of exchange, encounter, and education … It is, at its most ambitious, a complex mix of town square, classroom, playground, forum, sanctuary, community center, laboratory, and probably much more … Once the authoritative interpreter of priceless objects, it now also acknowledges the many interpretations of its visitors … They are the only institutions that collect, preserve, display, interpret, and educate for the public good. They are stewards of who and what we are today and have been in the past … Museums offer us an opportunity to be informed and inspired, to be enriched culturally, intellectually, emotionally. (AAM)

There are several words that appear in most of these definitions, words like preserve, education, exhibit, collect, interpret, and acquisition. Check out the Wordle (here is the link to the bigger version)…


These words point to what is arguably the central purpose of museums: the collection. Acquiring objects, studying them, interpreting their purpose, displaying them, preserving them, and educating the public about their importance – this is what museums are all about. Or is it?

Limiting the definition of museum to an institution with a collection immediately rules out entire categories of “museums” that exist today. For instance, what about virtual/online museums like the Museum of Online Museums at coudal.com? There is no physical space where the “collections” are housed, no mission of conservation, no actual objects on display. How about children’s museums? Some maintain collections, but most stress the importance of interacting with exhibits for the purpose of education and child development. What about museums that explore concepts rather than objects, like the Creation Museum or the Freedom Museum? Finally, what about zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens – does the fact that their collections are alive include them in the league of museums? There are people on both sides of these arguments, a debate between traditional and expansive ideas of what a museum makes.

What is interesting to me is that all of the above definitions describe museums in a rather positive light. If you asked a non-museum goer, would they come up with similar descriptions? Where one claims museums are a place of exchange and education, others might say they are institutions of elitism and exclusion. Museums claim to tell the stories of humanity and its environment, but some would argue that they only tell the story of certain communities. Some of these critiques are unfair, while others completely justified. Museums have a checkered past, but the definitions should change as museums adapt to the expectations of the future.

In the end I’m afraid I don’t have a perfect definition of the word museum, but this is as close as I can get…

mu-se-um [myoo-zeeuhm] noun – It is what it is, until it is something different.

What is your definition of museum?

3 Responses to “Back to Basics: Defining the Museum”

  1. aya on July 14th, 2009

    great post, much food for thought. i think my definition would be: a museum is a place dedicated to interpreting and telling the story of the past to connect it to the present and future.

  2. Defining Museums | newcurator on July 14th, 2009

    […] all my “What is a Museum’s Most Important Function” routine, Museumist asks a far more fundamental question: “What is a museum?” I think I’ll put […]

  3. Newcurator on July 14th, 2009

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