What Is a Museum?

When you think of a museum, you probably envision hushed halls that emanate a musty smell. But the reality is that museums come in all shapes and sizes. They can be art galleries, science centers or even zoological gardens. There are some that focus on one type of artwork or artifacts, while others bring together masterpieces from across the globe (hello, Mona Lisa). There are also a number that host traveling exhibitions. While a museum can have any number of purposes, the basic definition is: a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development that acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage for education, study, and enjoyment.

The first museums began as private collections of interesting items, but the modern museum concept is thought to have evolved from those early endeavors. The founding of the first official museum may be attributed to Napoleon I as he conquered Europe, confiscating artifacts and establishing them in his new museums. The museums were not only a source of nationalistic pride, but also a way to transmit his cultural concepts to the masses.

Museums are often considered to be the “keepers of time.” Through their collections, they allow us to see what life was like at different points in history. They are a window into the past that allows us to learn from its mistakes and triumphs.

Most museums are run by a director who oversees the operations and staff of the museum. The director is aided by a curator or curatorial team who are in charge of the care, storage, and arrangement of the museum’s objects for public display. Large museums will also have a research division, which conducts studies related to the museum’s objects. In addition, they will usually have an educational department that is in charge of providing interpretation for the public.

Although there are many ways to define a museum, most major professional organizations have some sort of standard for what a museum is. These include the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the American Alliance of Museums. ICOM’s current standard, which was revised in 2007, includes a list of activities that all museums should perform to meet the standard. These activities are as follows: