What is a ‘museum’?

In Museums on September 27, 2011 at 11:15 am

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘museum’? What even are museums?

Chances are you think of particular museum – a specific example of one. Or maybe you just think of display cases. Or of visitors looking at objects. Or do you think of people, talking and sharing stories?

I wonder if we’re ever going to figure out how to define what a museum is. The museum community has been trying to define it for years.

According to Wikipedia a museum is ‘an institution that houses and cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits  that may be permanent or temporary.’

The International Council of Museum updates its definition of a museum every so often, the most recent being at the 21st General Conference in Vienna, Austria, in 2007. They say 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.’

That’s only two definitions and there are many, many more out there.

I’ve been pondering a supposition that in fact each person will end up defining what the word ‘museum’ means to them in terms of three things 1) how they perceive museums;  2) what they’re into in general and 3) how they use museums.

Someone who perceives museums as old-fashioned and boring place, isn’t interested in heritage and never visits one is probably going to end up giving a rather negative definition of a museum. While someone who sees museums as places of learning and dialogue, is into cultural history and goes to museums a lot is likely to give a largely positive and enthusiastic definition. These two standpoints are, of course, polar opposites and there are a huge range of positions in between.

I’d be interested in exploring the different responses to those three questions and then trying to find a common ground on what a museum actually is. It’d be a hugely social definition of what a museum is, but it’d be interesting to find out.

Hmmm, there’s another PhD project for ever-growing list ….


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