International Council of Museums Redefines “Museum”

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) on August 24 finalized the new definition of the term “museum.” The Paris-based organization came to its decision on the matter during the 26th ICOM General Conference, in Prague. Four hundred eight-seven members, roughly 92 percent of those assembled, agreed on the new definition; 23 voted against it and 17 abstained. The vote followed four rounds of consultations over an 18 month-span, during which time from museum professionals from 126 national committees offered opinions and comments.

According to the new definition: “A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

ICOM’s initial definition was established in the 1970s. The revision, notable for its inclusion of the terms “diversity,” “sustainability,” and “accessibility,” is the first since 2007, and has been especially sought in recent years, as members looked for the definition to address the role of arts institutions in promoting social progress. After ICOM in 2016 assembled a committee to oversee a new definition, a new proposal was put forth in 2019, but was rejected, as some members feared that the language—which characterized  museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures”—was too “ideological” and risked turning museums into political tools.  

Noting that the new definition is “not perfect,” ICOM president Alberto Garlandi in a statement nonetheless described it as a “great step forward.”


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