• Fundacja Polska Debatuje

What about the definition of museum?

Historically, the definition of the museum was initially mainly focused on the organizational aspects starting from a mere collection, to an establishment, to a permanent institution. As the institutions started gradually growing both in numbers and complexity, requirements which had to be met by an institution to call itself a museum has also expanded. For decades, UNESCO has been applying a functional approach towards museums as institutions fulfilling four functions: preservation, research, communication and education. The definition adopted by the 22nd General Assembly of ICOM in Vienna, Austria, on 24 August 2007, was largely corresponding to this approach:


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.

In response to growing complexity of modern societies and unprecedented acceleration of change, the ICOM Executive Board has decided to initiate a process of revision of the existing museum definition, with a special emphasis put on the social dimension of institutional functioning. More than 269 proposals were submitted, each trying to adequately grasp current responsibilities, functions and designs of museums. The 25th ICOM General Conference, which took place in Kyoto, 1–7 September 2019, has proposed yet failed to adopt the following new 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.

There are many well argumented and elaborated explanations to why the definition was not adopted and we do not aspire to find conclusive answers. However, the important element of the discussion on the future of museums should not be missed: museums as public institutions have gained a significant role in shaping attitudes in societies and have become active actors of ongoing cultural processes. Mostly in Western societies, museums have been undergoing a democratizing process, increasing the role of participation and playing a visibly more active part in communication, education and reconciliation. Despite finding no consensus on the basic question: what is a museum?, the discussion on how to engage audiences and how to generate more positive social impact is timely and absolutely possible – if not necessary.


Author: Aleksandra Brodowska, she led the workshop – "Debate as an educational tool".

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