Museums and the Anthropocene


The word museum is a broad and expansive term, one that covers any institution that preserves or interprets some material aspect of culture. Nevertheless, museums reveal remarkable diversity in their form and content. Some serve as recreation facilities; others promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavours; some communicate overtly ideological concepts.

Nevertheless, all museums are bound by an overarching purpose: to preserve and interpret some material aspect of culture for the benefit of society. This is reflected in the various definitions of museums as proposed by ICOM: governance (1960 “a not-for-profit permanent institution in the service of humanity and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, documents, communicates and exhibits, for the delectation and instruction of the general public, objects of artistic, scientific or cultural interest”), collecting (1974 and 2007 “a not-for-profit activity that acquires, conserves, studies, researches and displays objects of art, science or history, for the benefit of humanity and its culture”), exhibiting (“a non-profit activity that exhibits objects from its collections”) and education (“in which people preserve the past, probe the present and prepare the future”).

A new generation of museum leaders, inspired by the ideas of social and environmental justice pioneers such as Rachel Carson, have called for more transparent museum practices, and a greater role for the public in defining and interpreting museum collections. This has been echoed in the growing popularity of ecomuseums and community museums. And as we have moved into an era of the Anthropocene, museums have been responding to ecological crises with new exhibitions and initiatives such as decolonization, repatriation and restitution.

These changes have been accompanied by major shifts in the nature of the relationship between museum and visitor. Museums have become increasingly inclusive and democratic, with visitors not simply consuming the museum’s products (artifacts, exhibitions, etc.) but also actively participating in the museum’s operations. Museums have also moved beyond their traditional elitist and esoteric roles to take on new economic functions, as for example the Guggenheim Bilbao did in its bid to revitalize a dilapidated city centre.

In light of these significant developments in museological practice, it is time for a new definition for museums. With this in mind, the ICOM Define standing committee developed a methodology to guide the process of choosing a new definition for the ICOM family of museums. Its design is based on increased transparency and participation, and the first round of consultation has been completed. The results of this round will be shared with ICOM’s membership in the next few months, with the goal of reaching the 2022 Icom General Conference with a proposal for a new museum definition to be put to a vote. The process of consultation will run for four rounds. Each round will cover different themes. The first of these will be on the theme of “People”. ICOM’s website is here.