What IS a Museum? A Museum Definition Kerfuffle & What it Means for Museum Visitors
The idea of what a museum IS, is changing. Recent openings (and popularity) of museums such as Museum of Ice Cream in New York City and San Francisco, and the Egg House, an egg-themed pop-up museum in New York City among others push the boundaries of our concept of what a ‘museum’ is. But what’s challenging the status quo even more than ice cream museums are controversies facing museums like donation sources and board members corporate affiliations. Most recently we have the Sackler Family controversy; the family who have donated millions to museums worldwide, yet the funding is now viewed as tainted given the family’s wealth stems from Purdue Pharma, the company charged with exacerbating the opioid crisis. Museums have been scrambling—strategizing how to respond. Though protests over museum funding sources is not new, it’s front and center now with social media and public sharing platforms.
The changing face of museums and the public’s responses to high profile issues has put forth challenging questions for the museum community—what is a museum? What place do they have in our culture? What are the roles and rights of visitors?
A Proposed ‘New’ Definition for Museums
These weighty issues no doubt contributed to the International Council of Museums (ICOMs) decision to create a new definition for its members this year. The ICOM is a global membership association that represents 40,000 members from 141 countries. Its overall aim is to establish professional and ethical standards for museums; its website states that it’s the “voice of museum professionals an international stage”.
Yet there was lots of drama when the ICOM put forth its new definition that differs drastically from its existing one which was modified in 2007. More so since the ICOM (initially) didn’t solicit feedback from members. And though a new definition is needed—agreed by the majority of ICOM members, the new one is deemed “too political”, “too idealogical”, reaching beyond the scope of museums’ purpose (Noce, 2019). It reads:
“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.”
It’s long, full of grandiose language. It’s also too rigid, it doesn’t give enough flexibility for small museums to work with.
The Visitor is Left in the Dust
But seriously folks, the ICOM’s existing definition needs to change—it’s outdated, it’s inwardly focused, it’s institution-centric. The visitor is left in the dust. It barely acknowledges the public. It’s all about them (the museums). This is not going to fly in today’s experience culture, where people want be part of of something.
ICOM’s Existing Definition:
“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.”
See what I mean? Note the emphasis on the actions of the museum—acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits. Where is the visitor in all of this? How is the visitor involved, or invited to participate and/or contribute? Granted it says ‘service to society’ but what does that mean? The visiting public is viewed as passive. Even the new definition is not much better in acknowledging, let alone involving visitors.This needs to change, big time.
There’s a similar museum membership organization based in the United States, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). It aims to champion museums and nurture excellence in partnership with our members and allies with a network of members and resources. I was curious how AAM defined museums. But I couldn’t find one on their site other than the section ‘core standards for museums’.
I reached out to AAM asking what its stance was on a museum definition. Their emailed response was a prepared statement as follows:
“The International Council of Museums' (ICOM) proposed new definition of a museum includes many of the American Alliance of Museums' (AAM) long-held values, including commitments to serving diverse audiences and functioning as inclusive spaces. Definitions can create common understanding and clarity, and this proposed definition is undoubtedly inspiring in many ways. However, definitions can also be used to divide and exclude which is why AAM does not strictly define a museum. Our society and communities are constantly changing, and with that museums need to be nimble and agile to best serve their communities. Setting limitations on the core identity of what a museum can and can't be interferes with that flexibility. We are proud and grateful to have a membership base and global Alliance that is incredibly diverse and know that their diversity makes it impossible to create a single definition that covers all of their needs and identities”
It’s certainly a safe statement. They might be lucky and pick up some disgruntled ICOM members. But it really mirrors the AAM’s decision not to have a definition in the first place. It’s risk averse. Perhaps it’s the best way to move forward; let each individual museum decide.
Not surprising ICOM’s proposed definition was not approved with 70% of members voting against it at the September 2019 conference. Back to the drawing board.
But I suggest there needs to be change that goes beyond a new definition for ICOM; what’s really needed is a new mindset and approach within the museum community—a different view on their collections, purpose and visitors. I like how museum scholar Stephen Weil described it in a paper in 1999, ‘it’s time to shift away from being about something towards being about somebody’. Twenty years later—it’s time.
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Museums for Real is a blog with ideas and thoughts on how to make museums relevant, approachable and fun for everyone,