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Reference: André Desvallées and François Mairesse (Eds.). Key Concepts of Museology. 2010. Available in 9 languages from http://icom.museum/professional-standards/key-concepts-of-museology/


n. (from the Greek mouseion, temple of the muses). – Equivalent in French: musée; Spanish: museo; German: Museum; Italian: museo; Portuguese: museu.

The term ‘museum’ may mean either the institution or the establishment or the place generally designed to select, study and display the material and intangible evidence of man and his environment. The form and the functions of museums have varied considerably over the centuries. Their contents have diversified, as have their mission, their way of operating and their management.

809afd93877a750961094ee09e969273Creative Museum

1. Most countries have established definitions of museum through legislative texts or national organizations. 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.” This definition replaces that used as the term of reference for over 30 years: “A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of the society and its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment” (ICOM Statutes, 1974).

e1fb94cbf8ecde4d63e187415139a429“Oh, oh!! a M is missing…”

The difference between these two definitions, which is at first sight barely significant – a reference to the intangible heritage added and a few changes in structure – nevertheless attests on the one hand to the preponderance of Anglo-American logic within ICOM, and on the other to a diminution of the role given to research within the institution. Initially the 1974 definition, written in French as the lead language, was a fairly free translation into English to better reflect the Anglo-American logic about museum functions – one of which is the transmission of heritage. English has become the working language most widely used in council meetings, and ICOM, like most international organisations, now operates in English too; it seems that the work to draft a new definition was based on this English translation. The structure of the French definition of 1974 emphasised research, introduced as the driving force of the institution: “Le musée est une institution permanente, sans but lucratif, au service de la société et de son développement, ouverte au public et qui fait des recherches concernant les témoins matériels de l’homme et de son environnement, acquiert ceux-là, les conserve, les communique et notamment les expose à des fins d’études, d’éducation et de délectation.” (ICOM Statutes, 1974). The literal translation, but not the official one, reads: “A museum is a permanent, non-profit institution, in the service of the society and its development, open to the public, which does research regarding the material evidence of man and his environment…”, In 2007 the principle of research (modified in French by the word étudier – to study) was relegated to a list of the general functions of museums, as in the 1974 English version.

8a2588aef0356d4774ca5652e5cae07c“Toros, the exhibition”, History Museum of Barcelona

2. For many museologists, and in particular those who claim to adhere to the concept of museology taught in the years 1960-1990 by the Slovenian school (Brno and the International Summer School of Museology), the museum is only one means among many that attest to a “specific relationship between Man and reality”, a relationship which is defined by “purposeful and systematic collecting and conservation of selected inanimate, material, mobile, and mainly three-dimensional objects documenting the development of nature and society” (Gregorová, 1980). Before the museum was defined as such in the 18th century, according to a concept borrowed from Greek antiquity and its revival during the western Renaissance, every civilization had a number of places, institutions and establishments that were more or less similar to those that we group under the same word today. In this regard the ICOM definition is considered to be clearly marked by its time and its western context, but also too prescriptive, since its purpose is essentially corporatist. A ‘scientific’ definition of museum should, in this sense, free itself from certain elements contributed by ICOM, such as the not-for-profit aspect of a museum: a profit-making museum (such as the Musée Grévin in Paris) is still a museum, even if it is not recognised by ICOM. We can thus more broadly and more objectively define museum as “a permanent museological institution, which pre- serves collections of ‘physical documents’ and generates knowledge about them” (Van Mensch, 1992). For his part Schärer defines museum as “a place where things and related values are preserved studied and communicated, as signs that interpret absent facts” (Schärer, 2007) or, in a way that seems tautological at first, as the place where the musealization takes place. In an even wider sense, the museum can be understood as a “place of memory” (Nora, 1984; Pinna, 2003), a ‘phenomenon’ (Scheiner, 2007), covering institutions, different places or territories, experiences, and even intangible spaces.

d9fc0e94aba661a1e59af52929af7541“The relativity of matter”, Levi van Veluw

3. From this perspective which goes beyond the limited nature of the traditional museum, it is defined as a tool devised by man with the purpose of archiving, understanding, and transmitting. One could, like Judith Spielbauer (1987), say that museums are an instrument to foster “an individual’s perception of the interdependence of the social, aesthetic and natural worlds in which he lives by providing information and experience and fostering self-knowledge within this wider context.” Museums can also be “a specific function which may or may not take on the features of an institution, the objective of which is to ensure, through a sensory experience, the storage and transmission of culture understood as the entire body of acquisitions that make a man out of a being who is genetically human” (Deloche, 2007). These definitions cover museums which are incorrectly referred to as virtual museums (in particular those that are on paper, on CD-ROM or on the Web) as well as more traditional institutional museums, including even the museums of antiquity, which were more schools of philosophy than collections in the accepted sense of the term.

9de7678eadc33e5494ae23c6b746c7f6Pallimnarchus, Queensland Museum

4. This last use of the term museum brings us to the principles of the ecomuseum in its original conception, that is to say a museal institution which, for the development of a community, combines conservation, display and explanation of the cultural and natural heritage held by this same community; the ecomuseum represents a living and working environment on a given territory, and the research associated with it. “The ecomuseum […] on a given territory, expresses the relationship between man and nature through time and space on this territory. It is composed of property of recognised scientific and cultural interest which is representative of the community it serves: non-built immovable property, natural wild spaces, natural spaces occupied by man; built immovable property; movable property; fungible goods. It includes an administrative centre, headquarters of the major structures: reception, research, conservation, display, cultural action, administration, in particular one or more field laboratories, conservation bodies, meeting halls, socio-cultural works- hops, accommodation etc.; trails and observation points for exploring the territory; different architectural, archaeological and geological elements…duly indicated and explained” (Rivière, 1978).

a82abf81b1d55006ec8560b28f6b304b“The dead zone”, Benoit Paillé

5. With the development of computers and the digital world the concept of cyber museum, often incorrectly called ‘virtual’, gradually became accepted; a notion generally defined as “a logically related collection of digital objects composed in a variety of media which, through its connectivity and its multi-accessible nature, lends itself to transcending traditional methods of communicating and interacting with visitors..; it has no real place or space; its objects and the related information can be disseminated all over the world” (Schweibenz, 1998). This definition, probably derived from the relatively recent notion of virtual computer memory, appears to be something of a misinterpretation. We must remember that ‘virtual’ is not the opposite of ‘real’, as we tend to believe too readily, but rather the opposite of ‘actual’ in its original sense of ‘now existing’. An egg is a virtual chicken; it is programmed to become a chicken and should become one if nothing gets in the way of its development. In this sense the virtual museum can be seen as all the museums conceivable, or all the conceivable solutions applied to the problems answered by traditional museums. Thus the virtual museum can be defined as a “concept which globally identifies the problem areas of the museal field, that is to say the effects of the process of decontextualisation/recontextualisation; a collection of substitutes can be a virtual museum just as much as a computerised data base; it is the museum in its exterior theatre of operations” (Deloche, 2001). The virtual museum is the package of solutions that may be applied to museum problems, and naturally includes the cyber museum, but is not limited to it.


Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse

And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology

Main image and for social networks:Messner Mountain Museum Corones (MMM Corones)


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Images: Classic Architecture Studies by Chema Pastrana