What’s a Museum?

Reflections on the New ICOM Definition of Museum

It’s vital for future of the museum industry for us define who we are. As Elizabeth Merritt, the Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, stated, “if we are going to present a united front as a field, decide on common performance metrics on which we should be judged, and collect and report data about ‘us’ we need to tackle this question [of ‘what is a museum?’], even if we end up agreeing there are different definitions for different purposes.” 

There are a number of definitions for “museum” circulating. There’s one by the United Nations, another by the UK Museums Association, and a number of places where the American Alliance of Museums skirts around the issue. Every visitor and museum professional has their own definition, as you can see from the clever video below by Emily Graslie, Chief Curiosity Correspondent at The Field Museum (my favorite definition is by an adorable kid who thinks “a museum is like something that there’s bones and stuff”).

On September 9, 2019, The International Council of Museums (ICOM) will vote on whether to adopt a new definition of “museum.” With 40,000 professionals in over 141 countries, ICOM is well positioned to foster a new international consensus on the definition of a museum.

What’s Changed?

The new ICOM definition challenges museums to cede institutional authority to their communities. It asks museums to shift their objective from transmitting expert knowledge to fostering dialogue and connection.  

Old ICOM DefinitionNew ICOM Definition
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 for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

Museums are democratising, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue

The old ICOM definition stated museums are “in the service of society and its development,” implying curators and experts get to determine what will better society and present their spin to the public. However, when I have Dr.Google to teach me any information I want and Twitter and Facebook to share my own opinions, I am no longer interested in being told what I should care about and how I should feel about it. 

In order to stay relevant, museums need to be spaces for dialogue. As Nina Simon states in her groundbreaking book The Participatory Museum, visitors “expect the ability to respond and be taken seriously. They expect the ability to discuss, share, and remix what they consume. When people can actively participate with cultural institutions, those places become central to cultural and community life.”

Museums “work in active partnership with and for diverse communities”

Museum Scene in Black Panther

As the famous museum scene in the movie Black Panther illustrates, museums have a diversity problem. They often display artifacts that have dubious provenance, such as artifacts seized during colonial rule, they talk about pieces from non-western cultures through a western lens, and even ignore indigenous knowledge about their own artifacts. The old ICOM definition supported these practices stating, a museum “acquires…the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment.” By labeling objects the “heritage of humanity,” museums divorced them from cultural context.

The new ICOM definition not only pushes museums to consider diverse perspectives in their collections and interpretation practices, but also in their community engagement. Many museums neglect to engage many of the communities right outside their doors. If a museum definitionally exists for diverse communities, this can no longer be the case.

Museums “collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit

Collect vs. Acquire

The old ICOM definition said museums “acquire” artifacts. According to Merriam Webster, to acquire is “to get as one’s own; to come into possession or control of.” Acquisition is about asserting power over something. 

By contrast, the new ICOM definition says museums collect. To collect  is “to bring together into one body or place.” Collecting is about assembling, connecting, and comparing. 

The new ICOM definition further  punctuates the distinction between acquisition and collection by asserting that museums “hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society.” Museums do not own the artifacts and do not have power to dispose of them as they wish. Rather, museums gather artifacts so diverse communities can better access them for generations to come.

Interpret vs. Communicate

To communicate is “to convey knowledge of or information about: make known.” It assumes a correct answer.

By contrast, to interpret is “to explain or tell the meaning of: present in understandable terms” or “to conceive in the light of individual belief, judgment, or circumstance.” Good museum interpretation not only recognizes the positionality of the institution, but also requires the institution to provide information in a way that is accessible to its audience.

No longer states a museums is a “permanent institution.”

Pop up museums have proven that an institution doesn’t need to be permanent to make a big impact.  In fact, non-permanent pop ups are often better equipped to meet visitors where they are and, thereby, create community.

National Folk Museum of Korea’s mobile museum for the Asian Games

Museums aim “to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing”

The old ICOM definition stated museums are for “the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” The new ICOM definition challenges museums to be so much more.

I believe that great museums can change the world. Our definition of museums should reflect our most ambitious aspirations for museums and encourage us to be the best we can be.

Picture by Ibtesam A. from Pakistan
Winner of United Nations’ Art for Peace Contest

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