(Re)Defining Museums for the 21st Century


(Re)Defining Museums for the 21st Century

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) believes that its current definition of a Museum, which has only seen minor adjustments over the past few decades, does not reflect and express adequately the complexities of the 21st century and the current responsibilities and commitments of museums, nor their challenges and visions for the future. ICOM has invited its members, committees, partners and other interested stakeholders to participate in the development of potential alternatives for the museum definition in time for the 25th ICOM General Conference, which will take place in Kyoto, 1-7 September 2019. Ian Duckworth, Associate Director of Research at Barker Langham gives his views on the topic.

There have been a number of Museum definitions used over the last fifty years by national museums associations and indeed the international council itself. ICOM first adopted one in 1977 and the definition currently in use (which was last updated in 2007) is:

 “A museum is a non-profit permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquire, conserve, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

 The thing to remember about definitions was well articulated by Fiona Caudlin in her “Mapping Museums” research of 2017 (http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/mapping-museums/2017/10/30/defining-museums/)

 “No definition is set in stone. They do not embody some universal truth or essential quality. Rather each definition has been introduced and written in a particular historical, cultural political and economic, (not forgetting social) circumstances. Certain core concerns stay in place guaranteed within the changes in focus that happen over time.”

 Being overly concerned with definitions can therefore miss the ‘reality’ of Museums today. The technology of experience is quickly moving beyond the object. A recent Van Gogh exhibition in Barcelona for example, which was curated by the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, has no Van Gogh paintings in it as they are too fragile to travel (https://www.webarcelona.net/barcelona-events/meet-vincent-van-gogh-experience-barcelona). Instead, it is an immersive experience created by technology. This approach to understanding through augmented reality does exactly that, through augmenting the object so beloved of Museum definitions and expanding understanding.

 Museums are also increasingly about creating forums as well as displaying objects. The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo, the Science Museum in London and no doubt the Museum of the Future in Dubai that is opening next year engage with the wider scientific and social issues in a way unknown in our sector twenty-five years ago.

It might be argued the idea of what object-based Museums used to be is under pressure from these developments, but I would suggest these extra dimensions are good so long as the integrity of the Museum’s mission is kept. The intellectual challenge is to keep to the definitions cited while engaging with and developing the new activity.

What do you think? Please do post your comments below.


Ian Duckworth

Associate Director of Research, Barker Langham Recruitment

Flora KissComment