Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb 1992)

The museum definition

Many museologists have attempted to define the phenomenon usually referred to as museum [note 1]. The problem of defining the museum phenomenon was discussed at ICOFOM's Espoo 1987 conference, and more in particular during the last session of the Museology and museums symposium. During this symposium the question was raised: "Why do we need a definition?". It became clear that different groups within the museological field have different requirements. The scientific community (i.e. ICOFOM) needs definitions for its scientific work; ICOM and other organisations might need a definition as a membership criterion; the museum world needs definitions to delineate its identity, often connected with a necessity to obtain legal status; authorities need definitions for administrative reasons, etc. There is a shift of emphasis according to the different requirements. For example, performance indicators feature largely in accreditation programmes. Here the definition is a yardstick, used to asses, not to describe.

The prevailing definition today is the one given in the Statutes of the International Council of Museums : 'A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of 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 people and their environment' (version 1989). From 1974 onwards this descriptive definition has gradually developed into a prescriptive standard. Students of museum studies have to learn it by heart, museums use it to legitimise their activities, and authorities base their policies on it, etc. But there appears to be a growing dissatisfaction concerning this definition.

The Dutch sociologist Nuyens has remarked that museum definitions usually are conceptualised from the point of view of the owner or governing body. He proposes an alternative, philosophical definition, developed from the point of view of the user, the visitor: 'A museum is a place which invites, in a special way, to contemplation and musing about our humanly strive after truth, goodness and beauty. This contemplation and musing brighten at one side the notion of our nullity and transitoriness, but reinforce at the other side the experience of our mysterious relationship and linking with the Imperishable' (Nuyens 1981: 151). Apart from the fact that few museologists will agree with this statement, the approach as such has been, until now, a rather exceptional one.

The structure of definitions

There are different ways of defining and different types of definitions. The type of definition commonly used to define the museum phenomenon is the paradigmatic definition with the structure of the "definitio per genus proximum et differentias specificas" (Razgon in Herbst & Levykin ed. 1988: 19). Such definition consists of two elements: an unifying ("genus proximum") and a differentiating ("differentiae specificae") element. The unifying element is a broader term, referring to a larger category (class). The differentiating element refers to the specific characteristics that distinguish one single phenomenon from related ones. Short definitions usually combine the broader term with one differentiating characteristic. For example: 'A museum is a permanent, public, educational institution which cares for collections systematically' (Burcaw 1975: 11). In this definition the broader term is institution (or rather 'permanent, public, educational institution') and the differentiating characteristic is given by the phrase 'which cares for collections systematically'.

In most definitions, however, the differentiating element is twofold, consisting of content and purpose. The aspect of content is usually also divided into two elements: a set of activities and the subject matter of these activities. An example of such an extended definition is the one used by ICOM. In this definition the broader term is institution (or rather 'non-profit making, permanent institution'). The element of content refers to the acquisition, conservation, etc. [the activities] of 'the material evidence of people and their environment' [the subject matter]. The element of purpose is given by the phrase: 'in the service of society and of its development', specified by the phrase 'for the purpose of study, education and enjoyment'.

There are descriptive and normative (prescriptive) definitions. The ones referred to above are largely descriptive. The one used, for example, by the Deutsche Museumsbund is in itself descriptive, but completed with some distinctly normative statements: 'Ein Museum ist eine von öffentlichen Einrichtungen oder von privater Seite getragene, aus erhaltenswerten kultur- und naturhistorischen Objekten bestehende Sammlung, die zumindest teilweise regelmässig als Ausstellung der Offentlichkeit zuganglich ist, gemeinnutzigen Zwecken dient und keine kommerzielle Struktur oder Funktion hat. Ein Museum muss eine fachbezogene (kulturhistorische, historische, naturkundliche, geographische) Konzeption aufweisen. Es muss weiter fachlich geleitet, seine Objektsammlung muss fachmannisch betreut werden und wissenschaftlich ausgewertet werden können. Die Schausammlung des Museums muss eine eindeutige Bildungsfunktion besitzen' (adopted in 1978; Klausewitz 1979).

There are two types of norms: practical and axiological norms. Practical norms are based on empirically established usages which have proved to be effective. Axiological norms are based on definite systems of values justified on the ground of some philosophy, sociological knowledge or political and social doctrine. The definition of the Deutsche Museumsbund contains both types.

Analysis of museum definitions

Any discussion about the essence of the museum phenomenon inevitably touches upon the issue of museology as a scientific discipline and the recognition of museum work as a profession. Chapter 11 presents a model of the relation between the basic parameters in museology. The same parameters play a role in the various attempts to define the museum phenomenon. They appear in connection with above mentioned four elements: 1 broader term; 2 activities, tasks, functions, responsibilities; 3 subject matter; 4 purpose. Each element may have a descriptive or a prescriptive (normative) slant.

broader term

Until the 19th century the term museum was generally applied to collections (August 1983). The conflation of museum and collection gave rise to the use of this term for books such as catalogues ('the printed museum') and collections of texts, like anthologies, encyclopaedias and magazines. An interesting example of this us of the term museum is the title of Bernard Valentin's guide to European collections: Museum museorum (1714).

Throughout the 16th and 17th century museums were, according to Paula Findlen, textual structures both in a literal and figurative sense (Findlen 1989). As is shown in Chapter 23, during the 18th and 19th century the concept of museum gradually became more concrete in a physical sense. Whereas initially a wide variety of terms was used to describe the physical space, ranging from piece of furniture to room to building (stanza, casa, casino, guardaroba, studiolo, tribuna, galleria, cabinet - see Findlen 1989: 70), the term museum increasingly became associated with the building rather than the collection.

Although some museologists still define a museum as a collection [note 2], and others as a building [note 3], the general opinion nowadays is that a museum is an institute. As such a museum is a phenomenon of the third sphere in the Chapter 11 model. The differentiating elements are derived from the other spheres. It can be said that what distinguishes museums is not their legal, corporate status as institute, but the preservation, research and communication (sphere 2) of objects (sphere 1) (Macdonald 1985: 5).

Quite often the broader term is narrowed down by adjectives, of which non-profit, permanent and open to the public are found most often. A former definition used by the American Association of Museums added: 'exempt from federal and state government taxes' which emphasised the cultural (educational) character of the institution (Burcaw 1975: 10). This emphasis on the educational aspect is also reflected in other definitions. Schreiner emphasises both the educational and the scientific functions by using the adjectives public, cultural and academic.[note 4]


Most definitions cover the whole range of museological 'functions', though in different terms. The functions are on the whole listed in "chronological" order: acquisition, preservation, conservation, documentation, research and display, i.e. a 'neutral' approach in that it does not subordinate one function to another.

The role of research does not seem to be decisive. Essential are the preservation and communication functions. In this respect museums are comparable to archives. In the Dictionary of Archival Terminology (1984) an archive is defined by the functions acquisition, preservation and communication. As such an archive is considered to be a service institute to researchers that are employed elsewhere (university, press). It is remarkable that earlier definitions applied by ICOM adopted a similar approach: 'The museum is an institution which exists to serve the community. It acquires, preserves, makes intelligible and, as an essential part of its function, presents to the public the material evidence concerning man and nature. It does this in such a way as to provide opportunities for study, education and enjoyment' (1971) [note 5]. In 1951 the definition was even more 'precise': '... any permanent institution, which conserves and displays, for purposes of cultural and scientific significance ... ' [note 6]. In the 1974 definition research was added to the basic functions, obviously to replace 'making intelligible'. It appears that this addition originates from natural history and anthropology museums, rather than art museums. It echoes the discussions of the 1960s in the USA about the social role of museums and the museum profession (Colbert 1961). Neither the definition used by the Museums Association (1984), nor the one used by the American Association of Museums (1989) refer to research. The Museums Association’s definition speaks of ‘…collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets …’. The American Association of Museums’ definition speaks of ‘… utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public …’.

Some definitions emphasise a hierarchical relationship: 'a museum is an ... institution, essentially educational or aesthetic in purpose, ... ' (AAM). Other definitions are prescriptive in the sense that they contain one decisive criterion. This criterion refers to either the preservation function (August 1983b: 150; Burcaw 1975: 11), or the communication function (Rijkscommissie voor de Musea 1980). Some definitions add quality criteria to these tasks. The definition as used by the Deutsche Museumsbund (see above) is one example. Another example is the definition given by the Dutch museologist Pott: 'A museum is an institution, open to the public, which, under a responsible curator and with the help of a qualified staff, in one more or less defined area of art, science, technology, nature, or of historical or social development, collects both objects and documentation, and applying all available technical means, registers, maintains, conserves, processes, studies and exhibits in such way that the expected public benefits from a visit, or experiences enjoyment, in accordance with the institution's constitution and policy' [note 7]. Similar performance indicators are given by Schreiner: '... exhibits and communicates ... in a scientifically founded, didactically processed and aesthetically organised manner'.[note 8]

subject matter

To most authors this is the heart of the matter. The use of objects as main carriers of messages is seen as the decisive criterion for being designated a museum (Wittlin 1970: 203). The present ICOM definition uses a very general description: 'material evidence of people and their environment'. The original 1974 version of this definition mentioned 'material evidence of man and his environment'. At the end of the 1980s the masculine form was not longer acceptable and in the new Statutes that were adopted by the General Assembly at The Hague (1989), 'man' was replaced by 'people'.

Some definitions refer to collections, others to objects: 'a museum is an ... institution which cares for collections ...' (Burcaw 1975); 'museum is an ... institution ... which owns and utilizes tangible objects ...' (AAM). Other definitions are more detailed as to the categories of objects: 'collections d'objets artistiques, historiques, scientifiques et techniques' (Rivière 1981). Usually some value is attributed to these collections or objects: collections of objects of cultural or scientific significance (ICOM in 1968), objects and specimens of educational and cultural value (AAM), specimens with presumed cultural and research value (Teather 1983), objects which best illustrates the phenomena of nature and the works of man (Brown Goode 1895), or simply: cultural and natural objects worth preserving (Deutsche Museumsbund 1978). Value is a relative criterion, therefore August prefers to speak of 'material objects that have engaged the attention of someone' (August 1983b). Others are more specific: 'mobile objects that are authentic sources capable of serving the lasting documentation of the development of nature and society and the acquisition of knowledge, the imparting of knowledge and the imparting of emotional experience' (Schreiner 1982, see note 4).

Gluzinski pointed at the logical-semantic and substantial imperfections of the current museum definitions with regard to the determination of the class of objects involved. Many of the terms used are in fact abbreviated descriptions of relations and not names of things; they express our attitude towards the things, the way of their apprehension, and, as Gluzinski states, attitudes as such cannot be collected nor preserved or stored (Gluzinski 1980: 442). In addition, the values attributed to the objects are time and place dependent ('substantial imperfection').

The subject matter specifications as given in most museum definitions are too vague to distinguish museums from archives, libraries and institutes concerned with the preservation of monuments and historic buildings. Even when some definitions specify certain categories of objects, like 'artistic, scientific (whether animate or inanimate), historical and technological material' (AAM), 'materials concerning history, fine art, ethnic customs, industries, natural sciences, etc.' (Japanese museum law of 1951, quoted in Hudson 1977: 2), museum definitions tend to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The 1974 ICOM definition uses the phrase 'material evidence of man and his environment', which is taken up in many other definitions.


Some definitions do not refer to purpose at all. There is a general tendency to consider museums in the light of their functional definition rather than in terms of their purpose (Weil 1989). According to Weil this is not surprising since what is different and distinctive about museums is that they collect, preserve, etc. That they do so for a larger and publicly beneficial purpose is neither different nor distinctive. They share this purpose with a manifold of other institutes such as schools, hospitals, orchestras, churches, etc.

Usually, however, something is said about public benefit. Some definitions are explicit on this point. The British Museums Act of 1845 gives: 'for the instruction and amusement of the inhabitants', which is rephrased in the Libraries and Museums Act of 1850 as 'for the instruction and recreation of the people'. The American Association of Museums' 1962 definition speaks of 'for its instruction and enjoyment'. In a similar way ICOM uses the phrase 'for purposes of study, education and enjoyment'. In 1974, on the proposal of George Henri Rivière, ICOM added to its definition the phrase 'in the service of society and its development' following the shift in perspective in museum work at that time (see Chapter 4). The Drents Museum (Assen) adds to this: 'in order to increase the possibilities for personal development and, if possible, to contribute to a growing awareness of the situation and factors that determine social life'.[note 9]

The 1984 MA definition uses in this respect the open-ended phrase: 'for the public benefit'. It also implies that a museum should not be a profit-distributing institution, i.e. that it should not distribute profits to shareholders. In the United States emphasising the aspect of public benefit is imperative for fiscal reasons. Museums are eager to acquire the status of a charity, primarily to be eligible for tax exemption. Clearly some measure of opportunism underlines museum definitions containing tax-exemptive qualifications.

In socialist countries museums are seen as important ideological instruments. In his dictionary of museological terms Klaus Schreiner gives a general definition of museums and a definition of the 'socialist museum'. In the first definition no purpose is mentioned. The latter states: '... for the purpose of socialist training, education and advancement of the socialist way of life of the citizens'.

In his analysis of museum definitions, Gluzinski pointed at the problem of the teleological character of many definitions (Gluzinski 1980: 442). The purpose defines the scope of the activities. These activities are direct depending on the 'arbitrary' (Gluzinski) chosen system of reference. As such the museum is treated as an instrument for the realisation of aims which are proper for the distinguished system of reference, which is, of course, time and place dependent.

Towards a new definition

During ICOFOM's Espoo 1987 symposium two points of view were presented as to the content of museum definitions. According to one group of participants a new definition of the museum phenomenon should encompass the widest possible variety of institutions (the inclusive option). According to the other group this definition should emphasise the differentiating element(s) in order to indicate the distinctions (the exclusive option). In this respect it is useful to refer to the distinction between institution and institute. The problem is the level of abstraction. Essentialistic definitions tend to be descriptive, aiming at revealing the essence of the institution. Stipulative definitions are much more precise, listing the 'performance indicators' attributed to historical and socio-cultural defined institutes. The main problem concerning the use of the ICOM definition may be that this definition does not make a choice between these fundamental orientations.

Many attempts have been made to analyse existing museum definitions and to develop a new one. The most important attempts tend to chose for an essentialistic approach. August (assistant professor of business law) analysed court decisions in order to find 'a workable legal definition of the term museum' to replace the existing one (August 1983b). His conclusion is that the longstanding definition is still the most suitable definition of the American museum: 'A museum is a place for collecting, arranging and preserving material objects that have engaged the attention of someone'. August adds that this definition does not include examining, researching, or displaying the objects. And while seeking to keep the individual material objects safe for as long as possible, this definition does not require the repository, the collection, or the ownership of the museum to continue for ever. Nor does it specify who may own the museum, who may use it, or what kind of profit may be exacted from it. In her contribution to the ICOFOM Espoo 1987 symposium Anna Gregorova follows the same line of thought (Gregorova 1987: 128). Her definition focuses on the very essence: 'a museum is an institute in which the specific relation of man to reality is naturally applied and realized'. From the context of her paper it is clear what is meant by 'the specific relation of man to reality', but independent from this context this definition is not unequivocal.

In its Proposal for a Register of Museums (1983) the British Museums Association suggested the use of the ICOM definition for registration purposes. The Museum Professionals Group did not feel the definition to be suitable and set up a working party to arrive at a new definition. This definition was proposed in June 1984: 'A museum is an institution which collects, preserves, displays and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit' (Museums Bulletin 24 (3)). Later on 'displays' was replaced by 'exhibits', to stress the obligation of museums to show (part of) the collection to the public. The proposal - slightly adjusted - was adopted by the board of the Museums Association and finally agreed upon by the Annual General Meeting, held on Guernsey in September 1984: 'A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit' (Museums Bulletin 24 (8): 142). This definition substitutes 'institution' for August's 'place'. According to the explanation 'institution' implies a formalised establishment which has a long-term purpose. The term 'interprets' includes research and communication, while the exhibiting is explicitly mentioned. As such the recent Museums Association definition is more detailed than the definition given by August.

For the benefit of the further development of the theory of museums as part of the theory of museology, i.e. for the benefit of the scientific community the following definition of the museum phenomenon is proposed: 'A museum is a permanent museological institution which preserves collections of corporal documents and generates knowledge about these corporal documents for the public benefit'. This definition refers to museological institution as broader term.

... permanent museological institution ...

Although the term institution refers to the idea behind the concrete institute, it implies a formalised establishment, which excludes private collections. To exclude temporary exhibitions, fairs, etc. the adjective permanent is added. This adjective refers to intention rather than to the actual lifespan.

... preserves ...

The term preserves is used in its widest sense, including collecting, conservation, registration, documentation. The term is used to avoid discussions on whether collecting, conserving, registering and documenting are decisive criteria. Since the aim of this definition is descriptive, the actual level of preservation is not referred to. Not all institutions that are called museums collect, so collecting is not mentioned separately.

... collections ...

The use of the term collections distinguishes museums from monuments. However, as preservation includes collecting a historic house should be considered a museum.

... corporal documents ...

The term corporal document is used in order to distinguish museums from archives and libraries. The term material evidence is too broad for that purpose. The term document refers to the opinion that objects in museum collections can be seen as 'recorded information'. The combination of preservation and corporal document does also intent to exclude collections of living organisms. Botanical and zoological gardens are not considered to be museums. They form another general type of museological institutions.

... generates knowledge ...

The emphasis on generating knowledge excludes commercial enterprises, like shops, art dealing, auction houses, etc. It does not exclude profit- oriented institutes, like wax-museums, etc., provided they offer an educational experience to their public. The term includes both scientific research and public-oriented activities. This general term is used to avoid discussion about which use is decisive. In this formula loan services are included, provided they take care of some form of preservation.

... for the public benefit ...

Although the museum is seen as a means and not an end in itself, any observations on the social purpose of museum work has been omitted. The proposed definition is meant to be descriptive. This is not to say that a museum is ideologically neutral, but a definition should not test the (social) relevance of the institution. Views as to the social purpose of museums are manifold and cannot be used as decisive criteria, hence the deliberately open-ended phrase 'for the public benefit'. On the other hand, this functional approach emphasizes what is most distinctive, not necessarily what is most important. 'Motive, impulse and purpose are sheared away leaving us simply to functions as professional collectors, preservers and exhibitors' (Weil 1989).


August, R.S. (1983) 'Museum: a legal definition', Curator 26 (2): 137-153.

Brown Goode, G. (1895)

Burcaw, G.E. (1975) Introduction to museum work (Nashville).

Colbert, E.H. (1961) 'What is a museum?', Curator 4 (2): 138-146.

Findlen, P. (1989) 'The museum: its classical etymology and renaissance genealogy', Journal of the History of Collections 1 (1): 59-78.

Gluzinski, W. (1980) U podstaw muzeologii (Warszawa).

Gregorova, A. (1987)

Herbst, W. & K.G. Levykin eds. (1988) Museologie. Theoretische Grundlagen und Methodik der Arbeit in Geschichtsmuseen (Berlin).

Hudson, K. (1977) Museums for the 1980s. A survey of world trends (Paris).

Klausewitz, W. (1979) 'Vorwort', in: K. Mörmann ed., Der deutsche Museumsführer (Köln) 2-27.

Macdonald, R.R. (1985) 'An agenda of opportunity', Museum News 64 (1): 5-12.

Nuyens, F.J.C.J. (1981) 'Een wijsgerige beschouwing over het museum', Wijsgerig Perspectief (6): 146-151.

Rivière, G.H. (1981)

Teather, L. (1983)

Weil, S. (1989) 'The proper business of the museum: ideas or things?', Muse 7 (1): 28-38.

Wittlin, A. (1970) Museums: in search of a usable future (Cambridge Mass.)


Note 1 No distinction will be made between museums and galleries. >back<

Note 2 Deutsche Museumsbund 1978. Also proposed by Burcaw in a letter to the editor, published in Museums Journal 82, 1982, (1): 46. >back<

Note 3 Allen in The organization of museums (Paris 1978) 13. Also in the Arts & Architecture Thesuarus. >back<

Note 4 In 1982 Schreiner published his first dictionary of museological terms. In his dictionary he gave the ICOM 1974 definition. In addition he defined the socialist museum as 'eine öffentliche kulturelle und wissenschaftliche Einrichtung, die mobile authentische Objekte, welche als Primärquellen langdauernd die Entwicklung von Natur und Gesellschaft belegen und der Erkenntnissermittlung, Erkenntnisvermittlung sowie Erlebnisvermittlung dienen können, systematisch sammelt, bewahrt, erschliesst, erforscht und zum Teil - wissenschaftlich begründet sowie didaktisch aufbereitet und ästhetisch gestaltet - ausstelt bzw. kommuniziert'. In his Terminological dictionary of museology (1988) Schreiner gives his own general definition of a museum: 'A cultural institution in which objects of the movable cultural property are collected, are preserved, and decoded according to the differentiated purposes of the class interests. They serve as means of demonstration and evidence and verify durably, in their authentic references, the historical development of nature and society and are used or utilized for research and for public exhibition activities as well as further forms of education'. >back<

Note 5 It is interesting to note that there is a difference between the English and French versions of the ICOM definition. The French version of the 1951 definition emphasises the research role of museums: '... tout etablissement permanent administre dans l'interest general en vue de conserver, etudier, metter en valeur par des moyens divers et essentiellement exposer ...'. In the 1974 text it says: 'Le musée est une institution permanente ... qui fait des recherches concernant les témoins matériels de l'homme et de son environnement ...'. >back<

Note 6 A similar definition is given by Brown Goode: 'An institution for the preservation of [objects] for the increase in knowledge and for the culture and the enlightment of the people' (Brown Goode 1895). >back<

Note 7 In his syllabus for the museum studies course at Leyden University (1981). >back<

Note 8 Definition of 1982 (see note 4). In 1988 he added: 'according to the differentiated purposes of the class interests'. His 1988 definition of the socialist museum is more explicit on this point: 'in the interest of socialist society and on the ideological basis of Marxism-Leninism'. >back<

Note 9 Definition proposed in its policy paper De toekomst van het verleden (1982). >back<