Deciding a New Official Definition —

of the Museum is Divisive


The International Council of Museums (ICOM) recently decided to postpone its decision to update the definition of a museum after a fierce debate between its members. Some believe the definition no longer applies to the 21st century while others believe changing it would be a disaster.

What is the ICOM?

The International Council of Museums is an NGO founded in 1946 that plays a central role and reference for museums and museum professionals worldwide. It has formal relations with UNESCO and partners with other organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, INTERPOL, and the World Customs Organization.

Its international public service mission includes fighting illicit traffic in cultural goods and promoting risk management and emergency preparedness to protect world cultural heritage in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

The 25th General Assembly of the International Council of Museums took place in Kyoto on September 7 with 40,000 members representing more than 20,000 museums attending.

The Words in Play

The council’s definition of a museum hasn’t really changed over the past few decades except for minor amendments: “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.”

Danish curator and museum director Jette Sandhal believes this definition needed to be updated. “As museums become more and more conscious of the strong social role they play, there’s a need for a more explicit platform of values from which we work,” she said. “Saying that museums can only fulfill traditional functions or play these new roles is what I feel we’ve outgrown in the 21st century.”

Sandhal led a commission that proposed the new 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.”

The Opposition

After a long debate, 70% of the participants agreed to postpone the decision to redefine the museum. Many have opposed the new definition for a few reasons.

  • The verbiage is too vague, political or ideological

  • It doesn’t distinguish the museum from a cultural center, library or laboratory and more importantly, omits the aspects of education

  • The new definition was chosen from within Sanhal’s committee despite ICOM crowdsourcing proposed definitions

One particularly vocal opponent of the new definition was François Mairesse, a professor at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle who left Sandhal’s commission back in June: “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.”

The Bigger Picture

On one hand, rigid definitions are important because the exact wording does affect legislation, which affects funding. We’ve talked about this before where museums actually do store and display stuff that isn’t necessarily of great value to humanity, but have obligations to other stakeholders to maintain that funding.Further, many highly-regarded traditional museums like the Louvre are not able or willing to fit the requirements of a drastically new aspirational definition.

However, the contentiousness of voting on this also comes against a backdrop where historically underrepresented communities calling on European and U.S. museums to be more accountable, such as the Museums Are Not Neutral campaign in the U.S. Globally, we’re also seeing greater demands to have artifacts plundered during the previous centuries returned to their native countries and have ties severed with controversial donors.

The friction in the council between the sides that are eager or reluctant to change the definition is understandable. Museums, like many other brands, companies, and gatekeepers with long histories, are going through a transition where they have to evolve their roles to meet the changing demands of the period. However, whether we are regular visitors or not, most can agree the museum, like the art gallery, the library and the cultural center is a place where knowledge and inspiration are concentrated, remembered and shared with the public. At the end of the day, what is displayed makes history, what isn’t does not. This central issue is likely to fuel debate and for some time to come after the ICOM re-convenes and makes its decision.