What Is a Museum?


When it comes to museums, people think of buildings full of old things and, more often than not, art or antiquities. But there’s a lot more to museums than that. There are a number of different types of museums and they serve various purposes, whether it’s education, addressing issues like diversity, or simply showing us the wonders of the world.

Museums can be classified in several ways, and the type of museum that a particular institution is depends on its mission, size, funding, and public engagement. For example, there are art museums, science museums, history museums, natural history museums, and many more. Museums can also be non-profit or for-profit. Museums that are for-profit are privately owned and operated, while nonprofits are tax-exempt.

The idea of a museum is an ancient one. It can be traced back to the human propensity for collecting and displaying objects of beauty or significance. Examples of these collections can be found in prehistoric cave paintings, and the first recorded museum was established in the early 2nd millennium bce at Larsa in Mesopotamia. Museums have since become a central part of cultural life and are important for the preservation, study, and communication of knowledge.

As the world’s most important museums continue to evolve and expand, they are embracing new technologies to reach and engage with their audiences. They are also using the power of their collections to address global challenges such as climate change, inequality and terrorism. And they are engaging with the general public in fresh and exciting ways, from hosting blockbuster shows on fashion designers Mary Quant and Christian Dior to bringing visitors inside a holographic orca pod.

In a time of increasing fragmentation and uncertainty, it is more important than ever that museums work together to share their common values and aspirations for the future. This has led to the formation of ICOM Define, a standing committee to revise the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) definition of a museum, which was last revised in 2007.

The revised definition is now open for consultation and will be presented to ICOM’s Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague 2022. It places greater emphasis on the work of museums to benefit society and to take up issues such as restitution, decolonization, repatriation, and democratization. It also introduces the concept of sustainability into the museum field for the first time. Museums are places for the whole community and should be inclusive and accessible. It is hoped that the process will result in a strong, shared museum definition which can be used to guide the work of ICOM and its member museums worldwide. To support the process, ICOM has drafted this toolkit to help museums make the most of it. The toolkit includes a series of videos, presentations, and tools to assist in the consultation process.