, , , , , , ,

What is a museum? How do we define a collection? What is an institution? What does the term ‘heritage’ encompass? Museum professionals have inevitably developed answers to questions such as these, which are fundamental to their work, compiled answers according to their knowledge and experience.

In accordance with the underlying principles of ICOM, the aim of the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM) since its beginnings in 1977 has been to develop museology as a scientific and academic discipline which will foster the development of museums and the museum profession through research, study, and dissemination of the main currents of museological thinking.


To this end a multidisciplinary working group was created to make a critical analysis of museological terminology, focusing its thinking on the fundamental concepts of museology. For nearly twenty years the Thesaurus Working Group compiled remarkable essays and summaries from its scientific research. Convinced of the importance of providing the public with a catalogue of terms constituting fundamental reference material, ICOFOM decided – with the support of the International Council of Museums – to introduce this publication at the ICOM General Conference to be held in Shanghai in November 2010. The introductory brochure, a summary of each of the twenty-one essays on a fundamental museological term, will be presented as a ‘preview’ of the forthcoming Dictionary of Museology in which these essays will be published in full, accompanied by a selective dictionary describing close to 500 words mentioned in them.



(Museum) architecture is defined as the art of designing and installing or building a space that will be used to house specific museum functions, more particularly the functions of exhibition and display, preventive and remedial active conservation, study, management, and receiving visitors.


Generally speaking, a collection may be defined as a set of material or intangible objects (works, artefacts, mente-facts, specimens, archive documents, testimonies etc.) which an individual or an establishment has assembled, classified, selected, and preserved in a safe setting and usually displays to a smaller or larger audience, according to whether the collection is public or private.



Application of the term ‘communication’ to museums is not obvious, in spite of the use made of it by ICOM in its definition of the museum until 2007. This definition states that a museum “acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” Until the second half of the 20th century the principle function of a museum was to preserve amassed cultural or natural treasures, and possibly to display these, without explicitly expressing any intention to communicate, that is to convey a message or information to a receiving public.

In the museum context communication emerges both as the presentation of the results of research undertaken into the collections (catalogues, articles, conferences, exhibitions) and as the provision of information about the objects in the collections (the permanent exhibition and the information connected with it). This interpretation sees the exhibition both as an integral part of the research process and as an element in a more general communication system including for example, scientific publications. This is the rationale which prevailed in the PRC (Preservation–Research–Communication) system proposed by the Reinwardt Academie in Amsterdam, which includes under communication the functions of exhibition, publication, and education fulfilled by the museum.


Generally speaking, education means the training and development of human beings and their capacities by implementing the appropriate means to do so. Museum education can be defined as a set of values, concepts, knowledge and practices aimed at ensuring the visitor’s development; it is a process of acculturation which relies on pedagogical methods, development, fulfilment, and the acquisition of new knowledge.



In other words, ethics are a philosophical discipline in philosophy that deals with identifying values which will guide both private and public human conduct. Far from being a simple synonym of morality, as is currently believed, ethics is the opposite in so far as the choice of values is not imposed by a specific set of rules, but rather freely chosen by the individual taking action. This distinction is essential because of its consequences for museums, since the museum is an institution, that is to say a phenomenon which exists by common agreement and which can be altered.


The exhibition, understood as the container or the place where the contents are on display (just as the museum appears both as a function and as a building) is characterised not by the architecture of this space but by the place itself. Even though the exhibition appears to be one of the characteristics of museums, exhibition thus has a far broader reach because it can also be set up by a profit-making organisation (market, store, art gallery). It can be organised in an enclosed space, but also in the open air (in a park or a street) or in situ, that is to say without moving the objects from their original sites natural, historical or archaeological sites. Seen from this perspective exhibition areas are defined not only by the container and the contents but also by the users – visitors and museum professionals – that is to say the people who enter this specific area and share in the general experience of the other visitors at the exhibition.



Starting with the French Revolution and throughout the 19th century, heritage essentially referred to immovable property and was generally confused with the idea of historical monuments. A monument, in the original sense of the word, is a construction intended to perpetuate the memory of somebody or some thing. Aloÿs Riegl identified three categories of monuments: those that were conceived intentionally “to commemorate a specific time or a complex event in the past” (intentional monuments), “those chosen by subjective preferences” (historical monuments), and finally “all the creations of mankind, independent of their significance or their original intent” (ancient monuments) (Riegl, 1903). According to the principles of history, history of art, and archaeology, the last two categories essentially belong to the category of immovable heritage.


There are two levels of institutions, according to the nature of the need they are intended to satisfy. This need may be first of all biological (need to eat, to reproduce, to sleep, etc.) or secondly the result of the demands of living in a society (need for organisation, defence, health, etc.). These two levels correspond to two types of institution that are unequally restrictive: meals, marriage, lodging on the one hand, and the State, the army, schools, hospitals, on the other. In so far as they meet a social need (sensory relation to objects) museums belong to the second category.



Museum management is defined today as the action of ensuring the running of the museum’s administrative business and, more generally, all the activities which are not directly attached to the specific fields of museum work (preservation, research and communication). In this regard, museum management essentially encompasses tasks relating to financial (accounting, management control, finances) and legal responsibilities, to security and upkeep, to staff management and to marketing as well as to strategic procedures and the general planning of museum activities. The term management is of Anglo-Saxon origin (although the Anglo-Saxon term comes from the French manège and ménage), and is currently used in French with the same meaning. The guidelines or ‘style’ of management illustrate a certain concept of museums – in particular its relationship to public service.



The notion of mediation works on several levels: on the philosophical level it served Hegel and his disciples to describe the movement of history itself. Dialectics, the driving force of history, advances by successive mediations: a first situation (the thesis) must pass through the mediation of its opposite (antithesis) to progress to a new condition (synthesis) which retains something of each of the two preceding moments The general concept of mediation also leads us to think about the institution of culture itself as the transmission of that common heritage which unites the members of a community and in which they recognise themselves. In this sense of the word mediation, it is through the mediation of its culture that individuals perceive and understand the world and their own identity; several writers speak of symbolic mediation.


The specificity of the museal field, in other words, that which makes it unequivocal compared to neighbouring fields, lies in two aspects: (1) sensory display, which sets the museal apart from the textual, managed in a library, which offers a documentation relayed through the medium of writing (mainly that which is printed; books) and which requires not only the knowledge of a language but also the ability to read. This procures an experience which is more abstract and more theoretical at the same time. On the other hand, a museum does not need any of these aptitudes, because the documentation it proposes is above all sensory, perceivable by sight and sometimes by hearing, more rarely by the three other senses of touch, taste and smell. This means that an illiterate person or even a young child can always gain something from a museum visit, where as they would be incapable of using the resources of a library. This also explains experiences of visits adapted for blind or partially sighted people, where other senses are called in to play (hearing and especially touch) to discover the sensory aspects of the exhibits.



In the accepted understanding of the term, musealisation means the placing in the museum, or more generally, transforming a centre of life, which may be a centre of human activity or a natural site, into a sort of museum. The expression ‘heritagisation’ is undoubtedly a better description of this principle, which rests essentially on the idea of preservation of an object or a place, but does not cover the entire museal process. The neologism ‘museumification’ translates the pejorative idea of the ‘petrification’ (or mummification) of a living area, which may result from such a process and which may be found in numerous critical reviews about the ‘musealisation of the world’. From a strictly museological point of view, musealisation is the operation of trying to extract, physically or conceptually, something from its natural or cultural environment and giving it a museal status, transforming it into a musealium or ‘museum object’, that is to say, bringing it into the museal field.


Currently museography is essentially defined as the practical or applied aspect of museology, that is to say the techniques which have been developed to fulfil museal operations, in particular with regard to the planning and fitting out of the museum premises, conservation, restoration, security and exhibition. In contrast to museology, the word museography has long been used to identify the practical activities associated with museums. The term is regularly used in the French-speaking world, but rarely in the English-speaking one, where museum practice is preferred. Many museologists from Central and Eastern Europe have used the term applied museology, that is to say, the practical application of techniques resulting from the study of museo- logy, a science undergoing development.

Formerly and through its etymology, museography referred to the description of the contents of a museum. Just as a bibliography is one of the fundamental stages of scientific research, museography was devised as a way to facilitate the search for documentary sources of objects in order to develop their systematic study. This meaning endured throughout the 19th century and still continues today in some languages, in particular Russian.



The first and most commonly accepted meaning applies the term museology to anything relating to museums and generally listed, in this dictionary, under the heading museal. Thus one might speak of the museological departments of a library (the reserved section or the numismatic cabinet), museological questions (relating to museums) and so on. This is often the meaning used in Anglo-Saxon countries, which has even spread from North America to Latin-American countries. Thus, where there is no specific recognised profession, such as in France where the general term curator (conservateur) would be used, the term museologist applies to the entire museum profession (for example in Québec), in particular to consultants given the task of drawing up a museum project or creating and staging an exhibition. This use is not favoured here.


The professional definition of museum most widely recognized today is still that given in 2007 in the Statutes of the International Council of Museums (ICOM): “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.”



The object is not in any case raw, reality or simply a given item which it would be sufficient to collect, for example, to be part of a museum’s collection, as one would collect seashells on the shore. It is an ontological status which, in given circumstances, a particular thing will assume, on the understanding that the thing would not be considered an object in other circumstances. The difference between the thing and the object lies in the fact that the thing has become a concrete part of life and that the relationship we have with it is a relationship of affection or symbiosis. This is revealed by the animism of societies often reputed to be ‘primitive’: it is a relationship of usability, as is the case of the tool adapted to the shape of the hand. By contrast, an object is always that which the subject sets down in front of himself, and separate from him; it is thus what is ‘facing’ and different.


In museology, preservation covers all the operations involved when an object enters a museum, that is to say all the operations of acquisition, entering in the inventory, recording in the catalogue, placing in storage, conservation, and if necessary restoration. The preservation of heritage generally leads to a policy which starts with the establishment of a procedure and criteria for acquisition of the material and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, and continues with the management of those things which have become museum objects, and finally with their conservation. In this sense the concept of preservation represents that which is fundamentally at stake in museums, because the building up of collections structures the mission of museums and their development. Preservation is one axis of museal action, the other being transmission to the public.



The adjective ‘public’ – as in ‘public museum’ – explains the legal relationship between the museum and the people of the area in which it is located. The public museum is essentially the property of the people; it is financed and administered by the people through its representatives and by delegation, through its management. This system is most strongly present in Latin countries: the public museum is essentially financed by taxes, and its collections are part of the logic of public ownership (in principle they cannot rightfully be removed or deaccessioned, nor can their status be changed unless a strict procedure is followed). The working rules are generally those of public services, especially the principle of continuity (the service is required to operate continuously and regularly, with no interruptions other than those provided for in the regulations), the principle of mutability (the service must adapt to changes in the needs of the general public interest, and there should be no legal obstacle to changes to be made to this end), the principle of equality (to insure that each citizen is treated equally). Finally the principle of transparency (communication of documents about the service to anyone who requests them, and the reasons for certain decisions) signifies that the museal establishment is open to all and belongs to all; it is at the service of society and its development.


Research consists of exploring pre-defined fields with the purpose of advancing the knowledge of these and the action it is possible to carry out in these fields. In the museum, research consists of the intellectual activities and work aimed at discovery, invention, and the advancement of new knowledge connected with the museum collections, or the activities it carries out.


In its most general sense, society is the human group understood as a more or less coherent whole in which systems of relationships and exchange are established. The society addressed by museums can be defined as a community of individuals (in a specific place at a specific time) organised around common political, economic, legal and cultural institutions, of which the museum is a part and with which it builds its activities.

Resource: ICOM DOSSIER Key Concepts of Museology + Museology