What Constitutes a Museum?

Next month, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), representing some 20,000 institutions from around the world, convenes in Kyoto, Japan. On their to-do list is a ratification vote on a new definition for what constitutes a museum.

The present ICOM definition is laid out in Article 3, Section 1: 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 for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.


Clear and concise.

In contrast, the first part of the newly proposed definition reads more like an sociological assertion than an institutional definition:

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.


This proposed definition is not sitting well with some national members who are seeking the vote be postponed. The fear, which I share, is that the new definition puts unnatural focus on ideology while traditional functions such as conservation, research, and education are made secondary.

Two of the new definition’s most vocal opponents are François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, and Klaus Staubermann, the CEO of ICOM Germany. Mairesse sat on the committee that drew up the definition but has since resigned, fearing it would pose problems for French museums which would likely refuse to embrace the definition, as well as it roiling the ICOM organization itself as more “a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated, and partly aberrant.”

Conversations about the definition of a museum have been ongoing within ICOM for decades. The present definition presents museums as intellectual sanctuaries for the discussion of myriad ideas and approaches to history, accessible to and for the benefit of everyone. The definition is far from outdated, which is certainly why its core remains in the new proposition.

The proposed definition seems motivated and tainted by contemporary politics, yet it might even have found greater acceptance had they led with the second paragraph – basically a restatement of the current definition.

But the socio-political assertion at the start poisons the tone of the entire definition. I hope they send the proposition back to committee to rework the first sentence and a half, and switch the paragraph order.

I just don’t see the advantage or necessity of projecting an overly romanticized vision of Raphael’s The School of Athens onto the world’s museums.

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