After a year-long controversy, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has approved a new definition for what makes a museum today, marking the first time in 15 years that the group has done so.
The new definition describes a museum as “a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets, and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage,” adding that it is “open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally, and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing.”
While the new standard mimics the definition’s previous structure, it includes mention of progressive concepts like “diversity,” “sustainability,” and “accessible”—terms that are meant to reflect recent debates around the civic role of museums.
In a press statement on Wednesday, ICOM president Alberto Garlandi called the revised phrasing a “great step forward” for the museum world at large, while also acknowledging the update is “not perfect.”
The revision passed with 92 percent vote of approval on the final day of ICOM’s General Conference held in Prague this week.
Ahead of that conference, 24 national ICOM committee members objected to a previously proposed 99-word definition that included words like “democratizing” and “inclusive,” terms that were deemed excessively “ideological” by those members. The vote was subsequently postponed, and ICOM launched an 18-month-long survey to weigh opinions on the revisal of the definition.
The debate is known to have divided the organization’s experts. It raised a perennial question about whether a museum’s primary purpose is to educate the public and preserve cultural heritage, or to exist as a hub that effectuates social progress.
Laura Raicovich, who addressed the topic in her 2021 book Culture Strike: Art and Museums in the Age of Protest, told ARTnews in an email that while the new definition puts a focus on “inclusion” and “ethics,” ICOM could have gone further.
Raicovich said, “It would have been a far more important shift for ICOM to acknowledge that museums are not neutral, and never have been, not as an excuse or apology for the past, but as recognition that each institution has its own history to confront.”