What is a Museum?

You know a museum when you see one, but do you know what a museum is?

The problem with any definition of a museum is that as soon as you understand it, you’ll find an exception to the definition. Most definitions start with a building – but there are building-less museums on the web. Definitions go on to describe a museum’s collection of cultural or artistic objects, but science centers don’t have such collections and yet are considered museums. In some cases and places zoological, botanical gardens and aquariums are lumped in with museums. Their collections are mostly living plants and animals, not hundred year old paintings.
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Almost all museums are non-profit or NGOs (non-governmental organizations), yet there are some for-profit companies that operate museums or at least museum-like galleries.

So what is a museum? It is an organization dedicated to sharing information and passion about a topic. Usually this includes showing some iconic objects. It strives to provide people with experiences that lead to better appreciation or understanding. Museums are intersections between collected things, information about those things, and experiences that people can have.

This looseness of definition allows museums to do darn near anything.
Although they are considered educational in nature, they have no proscribed curriculum and, as has been famously said, “No one has ever flunked a museum.”

The only content restrictions on a museum are those that are self imposed. When the organizers of a museum write its by-laws and apply for a state charter, they include lofty goals of public service in some specified field. Decades later the museum may, or may not, restrict its operations to these stated goals, but they won’t drift too far afield for fear of public censure.

In defining what a museum is we have obfuscated any clarity of vision you might have had. Museums can be hushed halls that radiate a musty smell. Or, they can be noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. They can have revered words of art or collections of living insects. They can be sending curators around the world to explore, learn, and collect. Or, they may never travel outside city boundaries.

To understand what a museum is, it is best to do what the founders wanted: go visit.

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