Museum Claims and Evidence

How should we define the term “museum”, and why does this matter?

by John FraserKris Morrissey
Aug 31, 2022

On August 24th, 2022, I was present in Prague, Czechoslovakia for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). With virtually all country delegations present or online for the vote, the international community registered a 92.4% approval of an aspirational new definition of what a museum is.

“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.”

We know that not all museums are non-profits. And given the fact that many museums are economically fragile, the concept of “permanence” is a debatable one. But the parts of the definition focusing on diversity and sustainability are worth paying attention to, as they speak to a number of important issues confronting science-informed decision making.

The definition coincided with the publication of a peer-reviewed journal article that we produced with Research Fellow, Dr. Kris Morrissey and contractor Terri Ball. Together, we reviewed recent scholarly literature exploring the ways museums are engaging with social issues—with a specific focus on the position of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge in those efforts. We found that many of the social issues that the public ranks as high concern appeared to be part of museum programming. At the same time, unfortunately, we also found that the presentation of these social issues tended to be isolated from the intertwined societal structures that make them so challenging.

As a team, we were committed to ensuring that museums have the opportunity to engage with a broader range of issues, and to be more deliberate when communicating knowledge about these issues and their underlying social contexts. There is more opportunity for cross-disciplinary and cross-sector work in this area—especially when it comes to using STEM to support education, reflection and knowledge gain. So too are there opportunities for working strategically to help museums and their service communities come together to collaboratively resolve the social issues of our time.

Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash

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