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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., adj. (Latin publicus, populus: people or population) – Equivalent in French: public, audience; Spanish: público; German: Publikum Besucher; Italian: pubblico; Portuguese: público.

The term has two accepted meanings, according to whether it is used as an adjective or a noun.


1. 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.


In Anglo-American law the prevailing notion is less that of public service than that of public trust, principles which demand that the trustees have a strict commitment to the museum, generally organized as a private enterprise with the status of a non-profit organization, and that the activities of the board of trustees are aimed at a certain public. This museum’s main point of reference, particularly in the United States, is more an idea of community than that of public, the term community often being taken in a very wide sense.

01ebe68877bd631f73e46cef166799c8Gallery House – Lekker Design

This principle of public interest causes museums worldwide to see their activities carried out, if not under the aegis of public authorities, then at least with reference to them, and most often to be partly run by these authorities, which in turn obliges museums to respect a number of rules which influence their administration and a number of ethical principles. In this context the question of the private museum and that of the museum managed as a commercial enterprise allows the assumption that the different principles connected with state ownership and the nature of public authorities mentioned above would not be encountered. It is from this perspective that the ICOM definition of museum presupposes that it is a non-profit organisation, and that many of the articles of its code of ethics have been drafted according to its public nature.

720628759e6d841f746f89aee2af326bImaginary Foundation

2. As a noun the word ‘public’ refers to the museum users (the museum public), but also, by extension from its actual user public, to the whole of the population addressed by the establishment. The notion of public is central to almost all of the current definitions of museum: “institution… at the service of society and its development, open to the public” (ICOM, 2007). It is also a “collection … the conservation and display of which are of public interest and intended for public knowledge, education and enjoyment” (Law on the museums of France, 2002), or again “an institution which owns and uses material objects, preserves them and exhibits them to the public according to regular opening hours” (American Association of Museums, Accreditation Program, 1973); the definition published in 1998 by the Museums Association (UK) replaced the adjective ‘public’ with the noun ‘people’.

enhanced-buzz-wide-32147-1369173189-17Hand-Woven Installation by Numen/For Use

The very notion of public closely associates the museum activities with its users, even those who are intended to benefit from it but do not use its services. By users we mean of course the visitors – the public at large – about whom we think first of all, forgetting that they have not always played the central role that the museum recognises today, because there are many specific publics. Museums have opened up to everyone only gradually, being first of all a place for artistic training and for the territory of the learned and scholarly. This opening, which has led museum staff to take an increasing interest in all its visitors and also in the population that does not visit museums, has fostered the growth of ways of interpreting the museum to all the users, as we can see by the new words used over time: people, public at large, non-public, distant public, disabled or frail; users, visitors, observers, spectators, consumers, audience, etc. The development of the professional field of exhibition critics, many of whom present themselves as “public advocates” or “for the voice of the public”, is evidence of this current tendency to reinforce the idea that the public is at the core of general museum operations. Essentially since the end of the 1980s we talk of a real “turn towards the public” in museal action, to show the growing importance of museum visits and take account of the needs and expectations of visitors (which corresponds to what we also call “the commercial trend of museums”, even if the two do not necessarily go together).

CFA_wall4-1600x1067Open to the public – Civic Realm Exhibition

3. By extension, in the models of community museums and ecomuseums, the public has been extended to cover the whole of the population in the areas in which they are set. The population is the basis of the museum and in the case of the ecomuseum, it becomes the main player and no longer the target of the establishment.

Main photo: Hand Woven Installation