What is a ‘museum’? A revised definition looks forward, not back.
The International Council of Museums now describes museums as institutions that are — or should be — “accessible and inclusive” and foster “diversity and sustainability”
By Kelsey Ables
For the first time in 15 years, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a nonprofit that makes recommendations and establishes standards around the world, has updated its definition of the word “museum.” Following a years-long debate over how ideological the definition should be, the final text includes new language about museums being ethical, diverse, accessible, inclusive and sustainable.
Approved by 92 percent of participants at ICOM’s general conference in Prague on Wednesday, the new definition describes a museum as “a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage.” The noteworthy changes come in the final two sentences, which read: “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 a statement, ICOM President Alberto Garlandini acknowledged that the definition was “not perfect,” but still called it “a great step forward.” The previous definition, which had been in place since 2007, was just one sentence long. Before 2007, the previous definition had not changed in 30 years.
The word “museum,” it’s worth noting, comes from the Greek for “seat of the Muses,” and refers to mythological figures associated with creative inspiration.
More aspirational than prescriptive, the updated language comes at a fraught time for museums, which are going through a sweeping cultural reckoning that has touched nearly every level of their operations, including decisions about funding and what is shown in their galleries. The new definition reflects this reckoning, but some critics say it doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge museums’ complicated histories of centering White, male and Western perspectives.
In recent years, the museum world has been plagued by accusations of “toxic philanthropy” for receiving money from such controversial patrons as the Sackler and Koch families. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 prompted renewed scrutiny of museums for their lack of diversity, both in museum staffs and in the objects in their collections. More recently, controversies about stolen artifacts have led some museums to return pillaged artifacts — such as the Smithsonian’s decision to return Benin Kingdom Court-style artworks to their homeland in Nigeria. Still, other works with complicated histories remain in some museum collections.
With these debates continuing to play out, the definition raises questions about how institutions will be held accountable. Similar to the United Nations, but for museums, ICOM can make recommendations, yet it lacks the authority to enforce compliance. And in the United States, where many museums are privately owned, its guidelines do not carry much weight.
In countries with mostly state-run museums, however, the definition can potentially have significant sway with governments that decide which museums and projects are worthy of funding. “That was part of the push to make sure that they got it right,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. “It would have real implications on many museums if it inadvertently said the wrong thing about what museums are or pointed to a past of what museums were.”
Lott, who attended the conference in Prague, praised the ICOM’s wording. “It is a timely reflection of the reality that the roles of museums are varied and many are changing,” she said. “I also find just a lot of hope in the fact that dozens of nations representing thousands of museums came together and found a common definition.”
Lott points to the Oakland Museum of California for its “introspective work on itself and the community,” and the Phillips Collectionin D.C., which hired one of the first diversity officers in the museum industry, as examples of museums that embody the principles outlined in the definition.
Others have noted that the definition — which makes strides in opening up a tradition-bound field to self-appraisal — can shape culture.
Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, began her tenure in 2019 with a vision of reform and reinvention, and she applauded ICOM for its efforts.
“I appreciate the challenge they had in developing the new statement — a reflection of the breadth of institutions represented by ICOM,” Feldman said in a statement shared with The Washington Post. “It is a complicated time for museums, as audiences and communities expect greater relevance, accessibility and transparency from them. The definition is also aspirational, which gives me great hope for the field.”
The revised wording has been a long time coming. In 2019, ICOM proposed an even lengthier definition that referred to museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures,” tasking museums to “safeguard diverse memories” and “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” It was dismissed as a bloated manifesto that used trendy rhetoric and did not do enough to differentiate museums from other cultural institutions.
Some aren’t so happy with where ICOM has landed now, either. As Laura Raicovich, author of “Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest,” told ARTnews: “It would have been a far more important shift for ICOM to acknowledge that museums are not neutral, and never have been.”
ICOM, a membership-based organization headquartered in Paris, has about 40,000 members from 141 countries. Formed in the 1940s, ICOM describes itself as the only global organization in the museum field. It publishes research, hosts training sessions, issues codes of ethics and maintains a “Red Lists” database that flags cultural objects at risk of theft and trafficking, so police and customs officials can identify them.