If we cannot define “museums,” how do museums survive?

Last year, my colleagues and I chatted about the work of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to propose a new definition of museums.  We listened to the MuseoPunks podcast, which featured different speakers talking about their perspectives on the definition process.  At the time, I remember being intrigued by the discussions.  The old definition did not seem terrible to me.  It struck me as bland and generic—similar to mission statements for most museums—but not erroneous:

“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.”

By comparison, the new definition is bold and aspirational even.  I recall thinking it is a little long and full of jargon, but exciting:

“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.”

Fast forward to today, and I come to recognize the bigger issue behind the discussion of the old, bland definition and ICOM’s inability to confirm a new definition.  We as a museum profession do not agree with what a museum is. 

While there is some agreement on what a museum does—collect, preserve, educate—there is not consensus on the museum’s purpose.  From our theoretical perspective at RK&A, purpose is the impact a museum has on people.  What is the positive difference a museum makes in the lives of people?

I had taken it as a given that museums were in agreement that the impact of a museum on people is the purpose.  And certainly there are many who feel impact on people is the essence of museums.  For example, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III recently said in an American Alliance of Museums session Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field that museums have put education foreward as their vision, noting the success of several museums because of their focus on education, conversation, and collaboration.  More pointedly, Lonnie said, “I think the key is not to forget that we are of the community, of the people, and that our job is service first and foremost.”

Certainly there has been a shift in museums to focus on education.  However, where I have been naïve is in thinking that all museums have made this shift fully.  With any change, it is slow and there is resistance.  This is what became clear to me as I read the President of ICOM’s resignation letter:

“Now it feels like we are becoming more and more self-centred, our minds occupied with self-interests, focused on our own sustainability rather than the sustainability of the whole which we are a part of. Can we have any relevance if we are so detached from the communities we want to serve?”

In our intentional practice work, the impact on audiences is a driving focus for a museum’s work.  While we think that each museum should strive for its own unique impact based on what the museum considers to be their unique qualities, passions, and specific target audiences, there is an underlying assumption that museums want to impact public audiences.  Museums are for the people.

A host of problems emerge if museum professionals cannot agree that museums are for public audiences.  How can we consider our field to be professionalized without an agreed upon definition that drives our best practices and training?  How can we expect individual museum professionals to carry out their work without this shared understanding?  Most importantly, how can we expect individuals to value and support museums if they don’t really know what a museum is—because how could the public know what we are if we as professionals don’t agree on their purpose?

Text " a museum is ... ?" on graphic background


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5 Responses
  1. One major issue I see in both definitions is lack of recognition that not all museums hold collections. Are the cultural institutions without permanent collections no longer considered museums? What about museums that are only in the digital realm?

    1. Fernando

      Hello Demetri:
      We can agree with the nature of the Museum, since it was a Greek “museion”, is to accumulate significant objects, expose them, and a long etcetera of “Hows” and “For what”. We can agree that a museum without a collection is just a worthy Exhibition Hall, a Kunsthalle.
      Best regards.

  2. I would hope there would be a variety of museum “types”.
    But the note about jargon is a real issue for me. The language should be straightforward and not contrived.
    Here is a little fun about what I mean:

  3. I agree with much that you are saying throughout the article. As a museum professional I found the second definition unattractive – I get the sentiment but there are too many words. There are times when the bigger museums forget about staying relevant and the fact that they are “for the people” but the smaller volunteer museums can over step the mark and do the same, repelling visitors by only accepting visitors who are like them. I wrote a blog post a few years ago about Museums in the 21st Century on Museum Whisperings and my view is still the same, that museums are about being “connected” – museums to their own collections and museums to their audiences. Nothing is static. Collections must be researched and reinterpreted and audiences need to be studied and nurtured so that they keep coming back. Museums are about connecting their visions and collections (or exhibitions if there is no collection) with the public to share knowledge and shape/reflect community values or discuss issues which may add value in a place that is safe for all.

  4. Fernando Almarza Risquez

    Dear Amanda:
    I have written an article – it is not the first – in which I incorporate more of my reflections on the subject of the updated definition of the museum. In it I quote you promptly. Now, it has just been published on the Museum Savvy blog.


    And your article, along with mine, has just been referenced on the Embassy of Culture website

    from German museologist and colleague Dr. Matthias Henkel.

    I greet you warmly, Amanda.

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