What Is a Museum?

A museum is an institution that collects and conserves cultural objects and shares them with the public for education, research and enjoyment. Museums are usually owned by a government, a private corporation or a trust, and run by a director who oversees the staff responsible for caring for and arranging the display of the collection. Frequently, museums also have an education department and a research department which are involved in studies related to the collection. In addition, they have a curator and other specialized staff who organize the museum’s objects and provide interpretation to visitors.

A large number of museums have become famous for their collections and are among the most visited attractions in the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example, boasts a world-class selection of paintings, sculptures and other pieces from around the globe. Another top museum is the Louvre in Paris, which is home to masterpieces such as Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.

The purpose of a museum is to collect and preserve the different artifacts that represent human history throughout the world, for the sake of human knowledge, understanding, education, recreation and spiritual fulfilment. The word museum derives from the Greek word’muzeum’ meaning a place of worship or a temple. A temple is a sacred place where religious services are held, and therefore it’s considered to be holy. Museums are also regarded as holy because of their role in the preservation of valuable objects that represent the past.

As such, a museum’s mission is to protect and share artifacts from the whole of humanity, and this has been the fundamental goal since its beginnings. However, in recent years the idea of museums being places that are a service to society has been increasingly emphasized, and this led to a debate about whether or not museums should be seen as institutions that contribute to the development of human culture.

While some people believed that this was a good thing, others felt that it was an inappropriate politisation of museums and that the notion of “service to society” would not be sufficiently flexible to accommodate the wide range of different societal needs that museums could address.

In order to address these concerns, in 2019 a new Icom Standing Committee, Icom Define, was formed with the task of developing a new definition for museums. This committee was mandated to engage the entire Icom membership in a discussion about the new definition, with the aim of producing proposals for a revised or new museum definition that would be brought to a vote at the next Icom General Assembly in 2022.

Icom Define undertook the largest outreach project in its history. Representatives from 126 of Icom’s National Committees, covering a total of more than 50,000 members, were spoken to over an 18-month period and in four distinct rounds of consultation. This included a focus on developing and analysing data from a survey that asked Icom member museums to rank five proposed museum definitions.