n. (From the Latin institutio, convention, setting up, establishment, arrangement). Equivalent in French: institution; Spanish: institución; German: Institution; Italian: istituzione; Portuguese: instituiçio.
Generally speaking an institution indicates a convention established by mutual agreement between people, being thus arbitrary but also historically dated. Institutions are elements in the broad range of solutions that mankind has created to answer the problems raised by the natural needs of life in a society (Malinowski, 1944). More specifically, institution refers to an organism that is public or private, established by society to fill a specific need. The museum is an institution in the sense that it is governed by an identified legal system of public or private law (see the terms Management and Public). Whether it is based on the concept of public trust (in Anglo-Saxon law) or public ownership (in France from the Revolution), demonstrates, beyond the differences in conventions, a mutual agreement between the people in a society, that is to say an institution.
Photography: Isabel Munoz
In French, when the term is associated with the general qualifier ‘museal’ (institution muséale, in the common sense of that which relates to museums) it is often used as a synonym for ‘museum’, most often to avoid excessive repetition of the word museum. The concept of institution, for which there are three precise accepted meanings, is nevertheless central to debates regarding museums.
1. 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.
2. ICOM defines museum as a permanent institution in the service of society and its development. In this sense the institution is a construction created by man in the museal (see this term) field, and organised in order to enter into a sensory relationship with objects. The museum institution, created and maintained by society, rests on a collection of standards and rules (preventive conservation, forbidden to touch objects or display substitutes while presenting them as originals) which are founded on a value system: preservation of heritage, presentation of works of art and unique pieces, the dissemination of current scientific knowledge, etc. Emphasising the institutional nature of museum thus means strengthening its normative role and the authority it has in science and the fine arts, for example, or the idea that museums remain “in the service of society and its development.”
3. In contrast to the English, which does not precisely differentiate between them (and in general to the way they are used in Belgium and in Canada too), the terms institution and establishment are not synonymous. Museum, as an institution, is diffe- rent from museum as an establishment, a specific concrete place: “The museal establishment is a concrete form of the museal institution” (Maroevic ́, 2007). One should note that questioning of the institution, even purely and simply denying it (as in the case of Malraux’s imaginary museum or the fictitious museum of the artist Marcel Broodthaers) does not mean that it has left the museal field, in so far as the museal field can extend beyond the institutional framework. In its strict sense, the term virtual museum (existing in essence but not in fact) takes account of these museal experiences on the margin of institutional reality.
This is why in many countries, in particular in Canada and Belgium, people use the expression ‘museal institution’ (institution muséale) to identify an establishment which does not have all the characteristics of a traditional museum. “By museal institutions, we mean non-profit establishments, museums, exhibition and interpretation centres which, besides the functions of acquisition, conservation, research and management of collections that some may carry out, have in common that they are places of education and dissemination dedicated to the arts, history and the sciences.” (Société des musées québécois, Observatoire de la culture et des communautés du Québec, 2004).
4. Finally, the term ‘museal institution’ can be defined, like ‘financial institution’ (the IMF or the World Bank) as all the national or international bodies which govern museum operations, such as ICOM or the former Direction des musées de France.
Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse
And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology
Main image and for social networks: Zebar, 3Gatti Studio