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The EU-LAC-MUSEUMS project engages with small, local museums and their communities. Often, the museums we are working with self-identify as "community museums", or "eco-museums". Our bi-regional research is highlighting both similarities and differences in how our museums operate, especially as regards museum governance. How these types of museums sit alongside the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Definition of a Museum is one of the core research questions being addressed by our bi-regional research.

Museum collections reflect the cultural and natural heritage of the communities from
which they have been derived. As such, they have a character beyond that of ordinary
property, which may include strong affinities with national, regional, local, ethnic,
religious or political identity. It is important therefore that museum policy is responsive
to this situation.

According to the ICOM Statutes, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly in Vienna, Austria on August 24th, 2007:

"A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment."

This definition is a reference in the international community.

On 25th November, 2017,  the University of St Andrews held a conference bringing together researchers from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and further afield, to ponder on these questions and to inform ICOM of their conclusions.

Defining the Museum for the 21st Century

Summary from the November 2017 conference at the University of St Andrews, Scotland

This English language iteration of the ICOFOM “Defining the Museum for the 21st Century” global debate was supported by the EU-LAC-MUSEUMS project, and the Museums, Galleries and Collections Institute, School of Art History, University of St Andrews.

The one-day conference consisted of a number of papers, a round table discussion and an interactive session conducted by Lauren Bonilla-Merchev (President ICOM Costa Rica, Member of the ICOM Standing Committee on the Museum Definition; Steering Committee Member, EU-LAC-MUSEUMS project). Speakers came from the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Iran, Israel, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and the papers discussed museums in many parts of the world including Brazil, East Africa, and Chile.

The conference was opened by Professor Sally Mapstone (Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews). Keynote speakers were:Professor Sally Mapstone (Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews)

Francois Mairesse (Professor of Museology, La Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris; President of ICOFOM)

Bruno Soares (Professor of Museology, UNIRO, Brazil; Vice-President of ICOFOM)

Alberto Garlandini (Vice-President, ICOM; President, ICOM Italy)

Because this conference formed part of a suite of events strengthening EU–LAC museum relations, there was particularly strong participation of both Europe and Latin America – based speakers. The juxtaposition highlighted differences and tensions between what the speakers considered museums to be, and who they were for. On one side, a hegemonic Definition of a museum perpetuates the exportation of a European concept to the wider world. On the other, having the Definition embedded in laws helps international and national administrations (while making it harder to incorporate other ideas). To of the papers focus specifically on “Community Museums” (in Mexico, and Africa) – a particularly pertinent theme for the EU-LAC-MUSEUMS project.

The conference was followed by a Youth Award ceremony marking the partnership between MGCI, University of St Andrews and Skye Eco-museum in the EU-LAC Youth Exchange led by Jamie Brown. A voluntary contribution by the St Andrews pipe band, and a Ceildh dance ended the day’s proceedings.

Points to emerge from papers, discussions and workshops include:

  1. The conference opened with a summary of the history and background of the definition and its iterations but highlighted the need for new thinking (if not a new version) because of the emergence of new kinds of museums.
  2. The fact that the current ICOM definition is embedded in several national and international laws and conventions means that radical changes would require changes in legislation and protocols.
  3. New models of museums covered during the day included intangible heritage, community museums, the idea of the territory museum, favela museums, pop-up and temporary museums (e.g. a Museum of Removals in Rio set up in an area where houses were removed for the Olympics).
  4. The round table discussion contrasted the use of the UK’s Museums Association definition which is embedded in the Accreditation process (which is necessary for recognition and for accountability for funding, grants etc) and small, independent community-based museums, organisations often self-identifying as museums but not professionalised.   The ‘real world’ effect of having a definition (ICOM or MA etc) is a professionalised museum. This can marginalise other types which do not quite fit the definition. This was also an issue highlighted in a paper about some East African museums which are often set up by one individual committed to preserving local heritage, an entity which does not fit comfortably into existing models.
  5. There was discussion about the principles which should guide museums, and some of their attributes or values such as ‘truthfulness’, ‘authenticity’, ‘responsibility’, ‘independence’.
  6. Phrases in the current identification which gave rise to comments or questions during the papers
    1. A museum is an institution – bureaucratic, sometimes a legal entity
    2. non-profit – many museums depend on commercial activities to survive
    3. permanent – a question about sustainability, for example if the state doesn’t have or distribute funding evenly, some museums are unsustainable without funding
    4. in service of society – all agreed museums have a social role, but which society – who is in charge? Who is asking questions in the first place?
  1. An audience activity with post-it notes and questions about the wording of the definition produced the following written feedback.


“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”


  1. Words to keep in definition
    1. Public, open to the public, public benefit
    2. Education
  • Study
  1. Development
  2. Intangible, intangible heritage
  3. Researches and communicates
  • Communicate, Communicates and exhibits tangible and intangible
  • Heritage / enjoyment /communication
  1. Service of society and its development, Humanity
  1. Words/phrases which could go
    1. Non-profit
    2. Society
  • Development
  1. Enjoyment The concept of ... and enjoyment
  1. Words , phrases and concepts which could be included:
    1. Replace permanent with a more conceptual term
    2. Facilitate dialogue and debate
  • Encourage/stimulate debate
  1. Access
  2. Inspire
  3. Engagement
  • Interprets
  • Inclusion
  1. Explicitly defining diversity – of gender, LGBT etc – part of the inclusion
  2. Participation, real participation
  3. Network
  • Safeguarding
  • Reflection (can be positive and negative?)
  • Empower, inspire, reflection, collections, well-being, participation, interprets, engagement, de-colonialisation, inclusion, promote, network,
  1. Individuals instead of society
  • The definition of a professionalised museum
  • Inclusion, well-being
  • Leveraging museum collections and communication for creativity and innovation.
  • Please avoid “authenticity” which does not work for intangible heritage!
  1. Definitions create expectations – should they have or indicate LIMITS to what museums can achieve?
  • Museums = People
  • “enjoyment” (bénéficier in French) “Access + enjoyment – human right to participate in cultural life
  • Question the phrase “in the service of society” – sometimes we need to challenge and question society.
  • What about responses to major environmental issues? ... roles in climate change? Biodiversity?
  • Should rethink the non-profit part as museums close down in UK for no funding available
  • In the service of society – with its different communities
  • Sustainability
  • Environment
  • Where is nature and natural heritage?
  • Less is more – shorter the definition, more open and inclusive
  • Function: “safeguard” may be preferable to “preserve” – more open term


  1. The ICOM Definition Standing Committee interactive session took place in groups of ca. 5-6 people per table, facilitated by student volunteers from the Museum and Gallery Studies course. The interviews will feed into the Standing Committee research and analysis. Participants included conference speakers, Alissandra Cummins (Barbados, former President of ICOM), Janet Blake (Iran and Scotland, expert in Intangible Cultural Heritage), and staff and graduates from St Andrews, among others. The questions posed were:

       What do you think are the most relevant and important contributions which museums can make to society in the coming decade?

       What do you think are the strongest trends and the most serious challenges faced by your country in the coming decade?

       What do you think are the strongest trends and the most serious challenges faced by museums in your country in the coming decade?

      How do you think museums need to change and adapt our principles, values and working methods over the next decade to meet these challenges and enrich our contributions?

Responses ranged across a variety of critical issues facing museums in the coming decades, not least the economic crisis, Global inequalities and insecurities, migration, and climate change requiring preservation and conservation priorities.