What IS a Museum, Anyway? Definitions and Explorations

Webster’s online dictionary says:

mu·se·um noun \myu̇-ˈzē-əm\

Definition of MUSEUM: an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value; also : a place where objects are exhibited


Is this how you picture a museum?
Is this how you picture a museum?

The International Council of Museums defines the word as, “a non-profit- making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment.”

The American Alliance of Museums says that “Museums are wonderfully diverse. They are operated by nonprofits and for-profits, colleges, universities and every level of government. Some are managed by large staffs; others are run solely by volunteers.”  They include aquariums, botanic gardens, halls of fame, and zoos as museum types.

As THIS great article (“What, If Anything, Is a Museum?” by Eugene Dillenburg) points out, the main common themes that most people agree on are:

  • • Non-profit
  • • Permanent
• Open to the public
  • • Public service (including aesthetics, enjoyment, and most especially education)
  • • Collections (covering acquisition, preservation and research)
  • • Exhibits (embracing communication and interpretation)

Do museums have to tell the truth?  If so, WHAT truth?  In history truth can be tricky.   For example, the accounts that we have from people throughout history were influenced by their lives and experiences.  For instance, a public historian friend of mine (K10’s portfolio) just relayed a story about the accounts of survivors of the Titanic.  Each person interviewed believed wholeheartedly that they were on the last boat off the Titanic, which was impossible.  While it was later discovered that boats were out of view from each other, the emotions and psychological experience of believing that those interviewed were on the last boat was real.  However, technically it was not historically accurate.

Bill Nye the Science Guy does not approve.
Bill Nye the Science Guy does not approve.

Truth can also be subjective when it comes to science and religion.  For instance, science may explain that evolution is real, but some people choose to believe in creationism and intelligent design.  I personally believe that museums, especially science museums, have a duty to explain the scientific theories that are generally accepted throughout the academic communities.  However, the Creation Museum in Kentucky presents the case for creationism (obviously).  At this museum, visitors see people riding on dinosaurs among the plethora of other expensive blockbuster exhibits.

Then there are the holdovers from the days of Dime Museums (see upcoming post soon!).  When I asked my upper-division undergraduates in Explorations in Public History what their favorite museum visited was, I was really surprised to have one or two mention Ripley’s Believe It or Not (review of the one in St. Augustine coming soon, too!).  Would you consider Ripley’s a museum?  It is definitely one of the most successful for-profit enterprises or chains around.  I’ll discuss this specific chain in a blog soon, but I would like feedback on this particular site.

Museum of Bad Art
Museum of Bad Art

Huffington Post posted “World’s Weirdest Museums” in September 2012.  The article states, “There are very few things, it seems, that don’t have museums dedicated to them these days.”   Truth.  Who is to say what things don’t need a museum.  Afterall, telling stories about history through objects is one of my favorite teaching tools.

 Other “Weird” Museums to Think About:

  • Museum of Menstruation – a student pointed this out to me, and I was super creeped out when I investigated it further.  Not only it is a tricky subject, it is also run by a man form the basement of his mother’s home.
  • Museum of the Weird in Abita Springs, Louisiana – spotted while on the way to the Abita Springs brewery outside of New Orleans.  Yelp reviews indicate that the museum is a must-see.
  • Wyatt Archaeology Museum in Cornersville, Tennessee – I have it on good authority that this museum claims to have a piece of Noah’s Ark as well as information about the location of the Ark of Covenant.
  • PEZ Museum – recently made an appearance through my twitter account for their ode to banned candy.
  • Museum of Sex, New York City – saw this from the outside, and really disappointed I didn’t have time to visit.
  • Museum of Bad Art, Boston – ask any art historian or contemporary artist – this is an awesome museum.  Who decides what art is good or bad, anyway?

How do you define a museum?  What do you see as the most important attributes an institution must have to be considered a museum or a “respectable” museum?

2 replies to “What IS a Museum, Anyway? Definitions and Explorations

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