What Is a Museum?

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment. Museums have many functions, including serving as recreation facilities, scholarly venues, or educational resources; promoting civic pride or nationalistic endeavour; displaying overtly ideological concepts; and more. They vary in size, design, purpose and content. Yet they are united by the common goal of preserving and transmitting cultural knowledge and awareness.

Often museums take on a political role in their communities, attempting to shape culture, for example in preserving or celebrating traditional cultural practices and values, and regenerating cities that have fallen into decline. These societal goals can be achieved through exhibitions that showcase the museum’s collection to a wide audience, or through outreach programs for young people. The Guggenheim Bilbao, for instance, was constructed as a means to revitalize the economically stagnant city of Bilbao. Museums can also have economic benefits in a more indirect way, attracting visitors and providing jobs.

The broad definition used by ICOM encompasses a huge range of different institutions, from those that specialise in collecting art to those that focus on science or history. The definition is a critical tool for the museum community, and is widely used by governments, funders, and the general public.

Museums are widely regarded as the most important cultural organizations in the world and have significant influence over our societies. They are the places where stories are told, where our identities and beliefs are formed, and where we connect with each other across time and space.

The museum community is currently engaged in a hard-fought struggle to find a new definition for the institution. A committee of Icom, the international museum association, known as Icom Define has spent years exploring the various issues that museums face and has made recommendations to the organisation’s General Conference in 2022.

The debate about the future of museums is complex, and reflects many of the challenges that are being faced worldwide by our sector. However, it is clear that the current definition needs to be updated and clarified to be relevant for today’s museum. The new definition must be easy to understand, flexible enough to allow for the wide diversity of museum practice around the globe, and should reflect contemporary global museological issues.