Defining a Museum. Should you bother?

As part of my PhD literature review on museums and technology I am attempting to define some terminology.

Take Museum for example.  How do you define it?

The most widely used definition is that by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) who define a museum as:

 “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.”

ICOM state that this definition has evolved continuously in relation to changes in society, even opting to try and overhaul it in the early 2000’s but realistically it hasn’t fundamentally changed since it was first adopted in 1974.

I have two main gripes about the ICOM definition. Firstly the words permanent institution. What is that in this day and age? It automatically suggests a physical presence, and doesn’t take into consideration the fluidity of museums, or any mention of a digital presence.  Does a museum have to have to be a real building in order for it to be a museum?  The Nationaal Historisch Museum of the Netherlands doesn’t have a building  therefore it cannot be a museum? I think not. Also Jasper Visser has a great post on what a museum is, or can be.

The second main gripe is of including the activity of acquisition. Many museums due to the political nightmare of funding cuts no longer have an active acquisition policy.  Does this mean that they are no longer viable museums?

You can also define museums by size, shape, collection, funding, management the list is endless. But as definitions are supposed to state what a word means, rather than describe an institution or activity how do you go about stating what a museum is, when the answer is so diverse? Is there such a thing as a generic museum?

So after pondering this definition for a while, I did what any self respecting Digital Humanist would do and asked Twitter : How do you define a museum?

chrisspeed @clairey_ross not by it’s architecture! Thu Oct 20 16:54:15 +0000 2011
chrisspeed @clairey_ross well I would read Thrift’s Non-Representational space and approach it that way. But that’s the hard way! Thu Oct 20 16:56:32 +0000 2011
NickPoole1 @clairey_ross ICOM Definition of a museum is available at Wld love to know if it works! Thu Oct 20 16:56:32 +0000 2011
kostis43 I prefer definitions that answer to the question what a museum ‘does’; not what a museum ‘is’ @clairey_ross @chrisspeed Thu Oct 20 17:00:01 +0000 2011
chrisspeed @clairey_ross @kostis43 Giaccardi likes the idea that museums offering a ‘pause’. In time, space, society, culture. Thu Oct 20 17:03:40 +0000 2011
kostis43 @clairey_ross @chrisspeed Not necessarily activities; that’s too specific. Objectives sound good; practices can also be part of the mix Thu Oct 20 17:15:08 +0000 2011
robmyers @clairey_ross: it’s a big building with lots of old things in it #thismaynotbeaparticularlyrigorousdefinition Thu Oct 20 17:20:19 +0000 2011
kostis43 Ultimately definitions are on the eye of the beholder, so by definition every definition is context-specific;not helpful agree @clairey_ross Thu Oct 20 17:21:03 +0000 2011
kostis43 @clairey_ross or indeed with the PhD! Well if you have a whole chapter on it, then that’s good; see also Luebbe and Huyssen Thu Oct 20 17:24:15 +0000 2011
chrisspeed @clairey_ross it’s a big question! Would keep me thinking for ages! Thu Oct 20 17:29:37 +0000 2011
mdoness RT @clairey_ross: I’m currently writing a PhD chapter on defining ‘a museum’ its making my head hurt.  how do you define a museum?>broadly Thu Oct 20 17:32:28 +0000 2011
mdoness @clairey_ross  good luck with the chapter :_) Thu Oct 20 17:40:07 +0000 2011
jenniwaugh RT @mdoness @clairey_ross: currently writing a PhD chapter on defining ‘a museum’.  how do you define a museum?> with love & awe Thu Oct 20 17:42:06 +0000 2011
mdoness @jenniwaugh @clairey_ross now I like that one…. brings in a different level..why be just rational..its all about emotions! Thu Oct 20 17:46:49 +0000 2011
jenniwaugh Ha ha! You’re welcome! Good luck @clairey_ross have you seen this darling little definition Thu Oct 20 17:48:53 +0000 2011
NickPoole1 @clairey_ross It’s interesting though – bearing in mind *huge* diversity of the sector internationally, does it not provide a common ground? Thu Oct 20 19:38:33 +0000 2011
poisonchallis @clairey_ross go back the Greeks, the home of the muses. Thu Oct 20 20:21:45 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross A museum is a public cultural institution. It therefore intends to serve the public. #museumdefinition #definingamuseumcoffee Fri Oct 21 07:31:33 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross it is not a private collection, not a commercial enterprise. The collections are scientific (Lapaire, 1983) #museumdefinition Fri Oct 21 07:33:04 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross Museums use economic resources and produce "outputs" like education, the preservation of objects and entertainment. #museum Fri Oct 21 07:34:11 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross one can characterise the museum according to the catchment area – a national, regional or a local one.  #museumdefinition Fri Oct 21 07:36:15 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross sip of coffee in between 🙂 Fri Oct 21 07:36:30 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross Lewis, Brian N. (1980): The museum as an educational facility. In: Museums Journal, vol. 80, pp. 151 – 155 Fri Oct 21 07:40:00 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross my study was mainly about open-air museums. Hope this was a little bit of help. #museumdefinition. ICOM is a good source! Fri Oct 21 07:43:48 +0000 2011
sociablephysics @clairey_ross "big building with stuff in" #youreWelcome #wheresMyPhd Fri Oct 21 08:10:49 +0000 2011
digitalurban @clairey_ross building with old stuff and hopefully a cafe. Fri Oct 21 08:43:13 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross maybe you have to write our museum definition. A good one that everybody will quote… I think museums have changed so much!!! Fri Oct 21 08:51:34 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @kostis43 @chrisspeed not all museums have activities, not all museums have even gone digital – or participate with web 2.0 Fri Oct 21 08:52:42 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @NickPoole1 in Germany especially many museums do not have a very good website or digital collections. Fri Oct 21 08:53:35 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @NickPoole1 nothing is very permanent these days. A museum has a place in most cases, is attached to a location. Fri Oct 21 08:54:32 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @sociablephysics museums are not always big building. They should be nice/have interestingness but that is not always the case Fri Oct 21 08:55:58 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @digitalurban museums offer culture, stuff people want to see & experience; the visitor online and offline decides where to go Fri Oct 21 08:56:55 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @NickPoole1 virtual exhibits & digital elements are new to museums, not necessary but this will happen everywhere now Fri Oct 21 08:59:09 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross permanent in the sense that the info and exhibits will be there always and add-ons. I do not like the word permanent really Fri Oct 21 09:00:52 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross older exhibits are in the archives #museumexhibits Fri Oct 21 09:01:24 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @NickPoole1 all good museums will eventually make use of digital elements. What do you think? Fri Oct 21 09:02:30 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross @NickPoole1 Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Lima)  has no physical location. Is this a museum? I’d say yes. Museum in dig. age! Fri Oct 21 09:03:50 +0000 2011
dhgermany @clairey_ross will think about aspects for a good museum exhibition during the day! #museumdefinition Fri Oct 21 09:04:25 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross the museum definitions seem all a bit antiquated maybe. A new one is needed! #museumdefinition Fri Oct 21 11:09:23 +0000 2011
nettys1 @clairey_ross @dhgermany you do not need the digital element to call it a museum. That’s extra – a place to discover treasures. Fri Oct 21 11:13:07 +0000 2011

It’s interesting how many people went for the ‘building’ as attempt to define and others plumped for the ICOM definition. I like how ingrained responses become from what we have been taught previously. I quite like thinking of museums as big grand buildings containing secrets and knowledge and excitement. But is that what a definition should be, a nostalgic memory of building that stole my imagination as a child (and continues to do), should it really be defined as such, when there are so many more modern developments to consider? Then there are the more personal responses, considering emotions and feelings. But what was really interesting is that no one on Twitter really came up with a definitive decision on what a definition of a museum should be. Let alone taking into consideration the more digital elements or the participatory ones. I do think we need a new definition, but as of yet I’m not quite sure what that might be.

Really we have the power to define and redefine the meaning of a museum willy nilly, to suit our purposes. Is it really right to have a generic ‘official’ definition at all? In reality, shouldn’t we let the public who use/visit/experience museums to do the defining?

2 thoughts on “Defining a Museum. Should you bother?

  1. Hey Claire,

    For my PhD, I’m trying to put online museum collections into an historical and philosophical context, to show how they challenge the very notion of what a museum is. I think one of the reasons you are struggling to define a museum is because a museum is only ever a concept, not a fixed “thing”. For all of sense that museums are about objects and buildings, they are themselves quite intangible.

    You might enjoy Eugene Dillenburg’s “What, if Anything, Is a Museum?” It asks some of the same things you are. Hilde Hein also has some criticism of formal museum definitions in her 2000 book on museum philosophy.


  2. Funnily enough, thinking about this for my PhD as well, though concentrating on ‘what is a museum object?’ I’m going to go with Wittgenstein, he may have been talking about trying to define what a game is, but his “complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing” applies to museums and museum objects as well – just because we can’t sum up what a museum is in a couple of pithy sentences doesn’t mean ‘museum’ is not a useful concept that we can all use…

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