What Is a Museum?


A museum (pronounced MUSE-uh) is an institution that collects, preserves, displays, and interprets objects of cultural or historical significance. Its public exhibitions and educational programs focus on a wide range of subjects including art, natural history, local history, and science. Museums vary in size and scope from small, privately run affairs to large institutions with millions of visitors each year. Some museums also function as research centers or have private collections that are used by scholars and experts.

Museums have been founded for a diverse array of reasons: to serve as recreational or scholarly venues; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavour; to encourage tourism in a region; and even to transmit overtly ideological concepts. Yet, despite their remarkable diversity in form and content, they all share the same fundamental goal of preserving and interpreting some material aspect of a society’s heritage.

The word museum has classical roots. In Greek, it means “seat of the Muses,” and it was originally used to describe a gathering place for philosophical discussion. In Latin, the word became muzeum, and by the end of the 17th century it had come to refer to an institution that collected and displayed cultural artifacts for the benefit of the general public.

During this time, the idea of a museum as an educational and public service facility began to develop. The founders of a museum establish lofty goals for a specific field when they write their by-laws and apply for a state charter. Generally, over the decades, a museum will adhere to its stated goals. However, it will also allow for a certain amount of flexibility in the subject matter it focuses on and the manner in which it presents its collection to the public.

Today, museums are often regarded as major social and economic drivers in their communities. They make money through admissions, donations and memberships; they employ a great deal of people and provide jobs in the fields of science, art, education, and preservation. In addition, museums are renowned as tourist attractions, and the largest such institutions such as the Louvre in Paris draw tens of millions of visitors each year.

The International Council of Museums has spent the last several years working toward a new definition for a museum. The result, which was passed at an Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague on Wednesday, includes, for the first time, phrases such as inclusion and sustainability. But the proposal met with opposition from a number of countries, especially France, where a delegation from the ICOM committee that led the process resigned in protest. Jette Sandahl, the Danish museum director who led the committee, said it was a disappointing outcome because of the time and effort that went into the process. She also cited concerns about how the new definition might affect funding. Some funders might be more likely to give museums money if they can show that they’re working toward global change and promoting the values listed in the definition, she said.