What is a Museum?

Museums are sanctuaries of culture and history, places to slow down and learn, to gain new insights into the world around us. They are spaces that celebrate the awe-inspiring creativity of humankind, and the power of art and history to transform our lives and bring people together.

The concept of a museum varies from one place to the next, reflecting a wide range of cultural values and concerns. Some museums serve as recreational facilities or scholarly venues; others were founded to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavour, and some even transmit overtly ideological concepts. Museums may collect, preserve, and interpret a broad range of materials, from natural and cultural heritage to architectural, scientific, social, political, economic, religious and spiritual histories.

There are many reasons why museums should be considered a place of public interest, including their contribution to economic development, the quality of life in communities, and the preservation of a shared human experience. But the most common reason is that museums provide a place for learning, recreation, reflection and enjoyment.

Throughout history museums have developed in response to social conditions. In Europe, the two world wars and the Russian revolution of 1917 resulted in profound change and prompted a major reassessment of museums’ role. Governments, professional associations and museums themselves looked at how to meet new challenges and make a greater contribution to society.

Museums have continued to develop in response to changes and new challenges. In the modern period they have responded to increasing environmental awareness through the adoption of sustainable museum practices and exhibitions that address issues such as climate change and the Anthropocene. They have also reassessed their collections and their policies in light of demands for restitution and decolonization.

Today there are museums of all kinds, from the National Gallery in London to the smallest village museum in Japan. The Musée du Louvre in Paris is the most visited museum in the world, with 2 million visitors a year. Its collection covers 5,000 years of creative activity in painting, sculpture, architecture, fashion, furniture and textiles, with blockbuster exhibitions such as the recent Monet show.

Some museums have few or no objects but are nonetheless called museums; for example, Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Other museums may have a very large number of artifacts but still be able to engage the public in memorable ways, such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.

The selection of a definition for museums is a vital task and requires the engagement of museum professionals worldwide. ICOM Define – the standing committee charged with this task – is inviting all members to take part in the process. Detailed methodology and dates are available in the “Museum Definition” space on ICOM’s website.