Virtual Issues

Defining the Museum: Struggling with a New Identity

Brenda Salguero

Brenda Salguero is the College Program Coordinator at MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) a program nestled within the Department of Diversity and Engagement at the University of California, Office of the President. Her passion and work focuses on speaking, tackling, and solving issues of representation of people of color in the museum and STEM fields. Brenda is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

What is a museum? The International Council of Museums (ICOM) first defined it in 1946 as: “The word ‘museums’ includes all collections open to the public, of artistic, technical, scientific, historical or archaeological material, including zoos and botanical gardens, but excluding libraries, except insofar as they maintain permanent exhibition rooms” (ICOM, n.d.).

This seems very simple and straightforward.

In September 2019, ICOM unveiled their proposed two-paragraph definition:

“Museums are democratizing, 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 artifacts 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” (Adams, 2019).

A much longer and weightier definition, it unleashed a flurry of controversy from museum professionals all over the world. The Chair of ICOM France, Juliette Raoul-Duval, criticized the definition, calling it an “ideological manifesto” (Noce, 2019). As a lover of controversy, I gravitated to the online discussions and commentary museum professionals had about the definition.

There have been a series of arguments as to why the definition is inappropriate, from it being too narrowly focused (not all museums are non-profits, after all) to the response from some people that museums are not political or social justice spaces. I saw the definition as the natural evolution of today’s museum identity, one that has been building for some time.

I find these arguments, particularly the idea that museums are not political or social justice spaces, baffling since museums were a catalyst for my own identity. Growing up, my parents neglected to teach me much about my own Central American culture. “You are an American” was always their answer to my curiosity. On the other hand, museums helped me connect with Latin American artists; even if their work was sparsely represented in art museums, I managed to find it and claim it as a part of me. Because of this experience, in my own life, museums have been a place for social justice and human dignity. So why are so many people offended — or, at the least, put off — by this part of the definition?

In the following series of articles, found within the pages of Curator: The Museum Journal, I catalogue an evolving definition for museums and what that could mean for the future of ICOM’s new definition.

Past Definitions

“…today there is apparently much confusion as to what a museum is or what it should be” (Colbert, 1961, p. 138).

Edwin H. Colbert’s article “What is a museum” was first published in 1961 and outlines the two core characteristics of a museum: preservation of objects and interpretation. Colbert states, “unless an institution has objects in its possession which it interprets through research or display or both, it is not a proper museum” (p. 139).

This definition no longer applies to today’s institutions; children’s museums, online museums, and other institutions would not qualify. Even ICOM’s definition at around the same time would not encompass today’s institutions:

“ICOM shall recognise as a museum any permanent institution which conserves and displays, for purposes of a study, education and enjoyment, collections of objects of cultural or scientific significance” (ICOM, n.d.).

In a 2010 article, Elaine Heumann Gurian goes over several more definitions different countries and museum organizations have created. In addition, Heumann Gurian suggested that museums might be better understood through categories that describe their emphasis. For example, some museums focus on their objects, others prioritize the nation state, etc. Heumann Gurian goes on to say that these categories are here to provide guidance and discussion and are not meant to be the final say.

And if that were not enough, we also need to consider each nation’s legal definitions. For the sake of brevity, here is a shortened version of the United States legal definition of museums:

  1. Museum means a public, tribal, or private nonprofit institution which is organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational, cultural heritage, or aesthetic purposes and which, using a professional staff…
  2. The term “museum” in paragraph (a) of this section includes museums that have tangible and digital collections. Museums include, but are not limited to, the following types of institutions, if they otherwise satisfy the provisions of this section.
  3. For the purposes of this section, an institution uses a professional staff if it employs at least one staff member, or the full time equivalent, whether paid or unpaid primarily engaged in the acquisition, care, or exhibition to the public of objects owned or used by the institution (Definition of a museum, 2019).

A 1983 article in Curator by Raymond S. August, “Museum: A Legal Definition,” dives deeper into the history of the word museum and its relation with the law. August makes a point to differentiate between the legal definition and how museums actually define themselves:

“But the courts have not considered the museum definition in the last thirty years, while museum personnel and museum associations have actively been reexamining the definition. Most of the elements rejected by the courts in the past have been adopted by many within the museum community” (p. 145).

My review of Curator’s archives in the Wiley Online Library and other sources showed there is no lack of definitions that attempt to outline what makes an institution a museum. Because of this, there is no consensus on the correct terminology either! I was drowning in a world of verbiage; it all began swirling in my head, shape-shifting into nonsense.

All it proved is that we have never had the answer — we still do not know how to truly define what a museum is, or what role it plays today. This led me to my next exploration: how have museums changed and why does ICOM’s new definition anger some people?

A Bunch of Meaningless Words

After combing through internet comments and articles, a few reasons for peoples’ anger with the proposed ICOM definition appeared repeatedly:

  1. It’s too narrow
  2. It’s too long
  3. It’s too political

I agree that the definition is too narrow, as it does exclude museums without collections. However, so did the previous ICOM definition from 2007, which stated:

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 (ICOM, n.d.).

Some of the same critiques for the new proposed definition also apply to all previous iterations; for instance, not all museums collect objects.

Additionally, in an editorial piece in 2019, John Fraser states that this definition excludes many museums, stating that some museums are not interested in the “consequential influence on human dignity, equality, or planetary well-being” (p. 502).

This makes it seem like museums seek to protect their objects over the well-being of humanity. However, their activities in education and research show otherwise, since those actions are done in the service of humanity. After all, what power would these objects have without the human stories behind them, and the way people interact with them today?

I agree with Fraser’s analysis that the ICOM definition is steeped in aspirational platitudes that museums could easily twist and render meaningless. As I see it, the issue at the core of this disagreement is that the definition serves an ethical model for museums to try to follow, as opposed to an actual definition.

Many museums blow hot air about diversity and inclusion. Having worked at a museum, these words, to me, have also been rendered meaningless after so many years of empty promises. For instance, take the fact that we have had little traction diversifying the field in the United States, despite new policies, conference sessions, and workshops devoted to this topic. A survey from 2015 revealed that 84% of museum staff is white (Bates, 2018). In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hired its 10th white male director out of 10 in a row, despite their policy dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and equal access (Sayej, 2018). Ultimately, what power do these initiatives have without any meaningful action behind them?

In my experience, museums (and so many other institutions!) are very good at setting aspirational goals and never reaching them. I want to see museum boards, staff, and directors take action within their institutions and make the buzzwords diversity, social justice, and inclusion powerful again. While the proposed ICOM definition is a sign that this movement is being acknowledged, a call for ethical action is not a defining term for what a museum is; rather, it simply lists an aspirational set of goals for institutions to achieve.

On the other hand, there are museum professionals who decry the new ICOM definition because they feel it is too political. Take the following comment from a museum association blog post:

15.08.2019, 13:24
“To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘full of sound and fluffery, signifying nothing’. Deary me, what bland, patronising stuff! Has anyone ever heard of plain English? And don’t they know museums have been inclusive, democratic and ‘polyphonic’ (just how inclusive is that as a word to the mass of people who visit museums) for decades. This is nothing new, people! Why on earth spend huge amounts of money fixing something that doesn’t need fixing??

Oh, and museums, in my opinion, should NEVER be influenced and manipulated by political mores. We’ve been open and democratic for decades, and are safe havens for all without all of this ‘social justice’ pressure, which is often downright patronising. If it appears museums have any kind of political agenda then we become as untrustworthy as any politician or government. We should tell the truth as it is without an agenda. We deal in facts. By doing that we grant ou[r] audiences the right to think, ponder, engage and debate without being preachy, and what’s even more frightening, manipulative.”

Museums are not inclusive. Museums are political by their very nature and have always had an agenda. Because of the model they were founded on, they still reflect the dominant culture. As museums widen their priorities and begin to actively diversify their staff, collections, and exhibitions, they will seem more and more political to those who adhere to the status quo. Museums deal in fact, but often highlight and feature certain perspectives above others. Take, for instance, the issue of the overrepresentation of male birds in natural history museums’ ornithology collections (Ashby, 2017)! Ashby states, “Museums are a product of their own history, and that of the societies they are embedded in. They are not apolitical, and they are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality” (paras. 3). Narratives in museums are written by people who are not necessarily from the same background or history they are writing about (Coxall, 2000). This historically has been the case, where white curators have controlled the stories and characters of the past (Hollander, 2019).

Ultimately, there are critiques of the ICOM definition with which I can agree, while I vehemently disagree with others’ reactionary and ignorant (of history!) comments.

ICOM’s definition is fiery and bold, and the anger people are expressing is a sign of change. The proposed definition reflects an aggressive new approach to museums, one that is actively working to challenge, push, and acknowledge widening priorities and stakeholders.

But I have a suggestion.

We Strive

Ultimately, the 2019 ICOM definition of museums yells one thing to me: we need to change! Museums have been discussing the shift in demographic changes for decades, yet here in 2020 the needle has barely shifted towards better representation and diversity.

This definition feels like a final acknowledgment that museums must change, even if they have to be dragged, kicking and screaming. Change or die! In that spirit, I propose creating a blended version of the definitions already presented by ICOM, one that is both descriptive and aspirational — and is clear about the difference. My additions are bolded below:

Any institution which conserves or displays, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, materials of cultural or scientific significance. We strive to be participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for our 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.”

Including “any institution…” also creates a much more inclusive definition, which acknowledges museums without collections, such as virtual museums. I also reintroduced a section (“for the purposes of study…”) from the 2001 ICOM definition.

Changing the word “objects” to “materials” is an attempt at acknowledging the different types of collections that exist. Yet “materials” still might not accurately represent institutions with living collections, like aquariums.

Adding “we strive” creates a collective goal while keeping snippets of older definitions. This will also more accurately reflect where museums currently stand; they are attempting to be open and inclusive, while still upholding aspects of white supremacy.

Dropping in “our” calls for a stronger connection between communities and museums, pointing to the need to demolish the wall between us and them. Diverse communities belong in museums, and museums belong in diverse communities.

Keeping phrases like social justice and global equality delivers a statement to naysayers who claim that museums are apolitical spaces. Museums’ importance and far-reaching influence makes their work in the arenas of social justice and global equality imperative. Museums must continue to strive towards this goal in order to thrive.

Is this definition the perfect solution? No. I do not think we will ever reach a perfect consensus and satisfy everyone. Perhaps we need to refocus our efforts and stop attempting to come up with the perfect definition. Instead, a simple aspirational statement can work as a guiding star, to serve as a touchpoint between all types of institutions. We can then focus our efforts on actions, on creating spaces that truly serve and represent our communities.

After all, isn’t that the point?


Adams, G. K. (2019, July 31). ICOM unveils new museum definitions. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Ashby, Jack. (2017, December 20) The Hidden Biases That Shape Natural History Museums. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from

August, R.S. (1983). Museum: A Legal Definition. Curator: The Museum Journal, 26: 137-153. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1983.tb00602.x

Bates, K. G. (2018, April 13). Not Enough Color In American Art Museums. Retrieved March 29, 2020, from

Colbert, E.H. (1961), What is a Museum? Curator: The Museum Journal, 4: 138-146. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1961.tb01110.x

Coxall, H. (2000). “‘Whose Story Is It Anyway?’ Language and Museums.” Journal of Museum Ethnography, (12), 87-100. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from

Definition of a museum, 2 C.F.R. § 3187.3 (2019).

ICOM. (n.d.). Development of the Museum Definition according to ICOM Statutes (2007-1946). Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Fraser, J. (2019). A Discomforting Definition of Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62: 501-504. doi:10.1111/cura.12345

Gurian, E.H. (2002). Choosing among the Options: An Opinion about Museum Definitions. Curator: The Museum Journal, 45: 75-88. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2002.tb01182.x

Haynes, S. (2019, September 9). Why a Plan to Redefine the Meaning of ‘Museum’ Is Stirring Up Controversy. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Hollander, A. (2019, December 23). Museums & Truth. The Truth is, there is More Than one Truth! Retrieved May 7, 2020, from

Noce, V. (2019, August 19). What exactly is a museum? Icom comes to blows over new definition. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Sayej, N. (2018, April 16). Diversity in spotlight as Met museum hires 10th white male director in a row. Retrieved March 29, 2020, from

Watkins, C.A. (1994). Are Museums Still Necessary? Curator: The Museum Journal, 37: 25-35. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1994.tb01004.x

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *