Defining the Museum: Struggling with a New Identity

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

Article by Brenda Salguero

What is a museum? The International Council of Museums (ICOM) first defined it in 1946 as: “The word ‘museums’ includes all collections open to the public, of artistic, technical, scientific, historical or archaeological material, including zoos and botanical gardens, but excluding libraries, except insofar as they maintain permanent exhibition rooms” (ICOM, n.d.).


This seems very simple and straightforward.


In September 2019, ICOM unveiled their proposed two-paragraph definition:

“Museums are democratizing, 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 artifacts 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” (Adams, 2019).

A much longer and weightier definition, it unleashed a flurry of controversy from museum professionals all over the world. The Chair of ICOM France, Juliette Raoul-Duval, criticized the definition, calling it an “ideological manifesto” (Noce, 2019). As a lover of controversy, I gravitated to the online discussions and commentary museum professionals had about the definition.


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