What Is a Museum?


If you’re interested in art or history, you may be aware of the many famous museums throughout the world that hold some of the most incredible collections on earth. But there’s a lot more to a museum than just displaying historical artifacts and ancient treasures. These institutions are often very much in service of their communities, and they work to preserve and make accessible the artifacts that represent the human experience for all of us to enjoy.

A museum is an institution that is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the primary tangible evidence of humanity and its environment. It differs from a library, with which it is sometimes compared, in that the objects housed in a museum are unique and communicate to the viewer directly.

Museums are non-profit and open to the public and are a place for learning, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally, and with the participation of their communities. They are open to all and foster diversity and sustainability, while providing varied experiences for visitors from all backgrounds, including the most disadvantaged.

But as the famous scene in Black Panther illustrates, there’s a problem with museums: they can be culturally biased, and often treat artifacts from other cultures as if they were their own. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that some of the older definitions of what defines a museum, from major museum professional organizations around the world, include wording such as “acquiring” or “obtaining.” Merriam Webster’s dictionary describes acquisition as “to get as one’s own; to come into possession or control of,” which suggests that museums are taking something as their own and divorced from cultural context.

In the new museum definition that will become part of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) standards for accreditation, there is a strong focus on diversity and community engagement. Rather than acquiring or possessing, the new definition of a museum calls for museums to collect and bring together a diverse range of materials from the past for the benefit of all.

Curators play a vital role in this process, by selecting what items will be included in the museum’s collection, getting them to the museum and ensuring that they are safely stored. They are also responsible for presenting the collection to the public and educating the public about the objects in their care.

The job of a curator is not for the faint of heart. It is a competitive field with a lower pay scale than many other professions, but if you’re passionate about art or history it may be a career worth pursuing. The American Association of Museums does a good job of surveying salary levels in the field, so be sure to check out their latest reports for more information.

In this episode of Britannica’s podcast series The Brain Scoop, Emily Grassie talks to Natalie Colomb from the MIT List Visual Arts Center about her work in the curation field. She explains that being a curator can be both rewarding and challenging, and she offers some helpful tips for anyone looking to start in the industry.