Carefully Worded Definition of “Museum” Eschews Neutrality

A near-unanimous vote by members of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has officially replaced its standing definition of a “museum” with a more contemporary one. The new definition introduces terms like “accessibility,” “inclusivity,” “diversity,” and “community,” marking a more horizontal and democratic conception of the modern museum.

ICOM’s definition of a museum was last updated in 2007 during General Assembly conference proceedings in Vienna. But since 1974, modifications to ICOM’s definition have been relatively minor and piecemeal. In full, the new definition now reads:

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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.

In this new definition, it is stressed that the museum, in addition to being “open to the public,” is “accessible and inclusive,” with the stated aim of facilitating “diversity and sustainability.” For the new museum, “tangible and intangible heritage” is “collected,” not “acquired”; “interpreted,” not “explained,” or “communicated.” The museum’s raison d’etre is formulated as “reflection and knowledge sharing” over “study.” Each of these subtle shifts signals that the museum world is moving towards a model wherein it occupies a node in a more level network of people and institutions rather than a neutral position of privileged authority and significance.

Legally, ICOM’s definition often determines the definitions national governments use. This, in turn, can influence how organizations are taxed, what funding they are qualified to receive, and whether they receive heritage protection status. 

The vote puts an end to a lengthy 18-month participatory process that involved the work of 20 ICOM Define committee members and the collaboration of over 120 national committees globally. The committee’s work began in 2019 when a controversial definition proposed at a conference in Kyoto was not successfully adopted due to the opposition of the representatives of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada, and Russia. The definition in question was over twice the length of the one that was still in effect since 2007, stuffed with what some believed to be politically charged fragments such as that museums should be “democratizing, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures,” and that they should aim “to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” After four hours of tense debate, 70% of delegates declined to vote on the new definition, electing to postpone the issue.

Jette Sandahl, who was then the chair of ICOM’s Standing Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP) — an earlier iteration of ICOM Define — was vocal about the necessity that the definition of a museum be politicized. Asserting “neutrality in relation to urgent societal issues,” she said then, was an “abnegation of societal responsibilities.” But her stance came under fire for not translating smoothly into a legal definition, and some complained that it swept under the rug the structural challenges that prevent museums from fulfilling lofty ethical aspirations. 

Some have already voiced dissatisfaction that the newly adopted definition is not as transformative as they wish it to be. Inkyung Chang, director of the Iron Museum in Seoul, Korea, said in a panel discussion, “It’s not progressive enough for me.” But Chang added that while “it’s not strong enough … you can do strong things in your museum.” 

The committee charged with drafting a new definition sought to avoid some of the mistakes it made in the leadup to the 2019 conference, widening its outreach and methodically incorporating their suggestions. They solicited 269 submissions, all of which were published on ICOM’s Museum definition website in April 2019.


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