There are now a great many, arguably several hundred thousand, public museums world-wide. From those that occupy the better part of an entire city block with collections numbering in the millions, to those that appear only on a website or are restricted to a single store front containing only a few dozen objects, the diversity of museums is astounding.
During the 20th century, an era of vast explosion of professional and public interest in museums, many definitions of the museum have been proposed. Examples include: Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum) and the Museums Association (http://www.museumsassociation.org/about/frequently-asked-questions).
The problem with most existing definitions is that they have been too specific, too focused on one sort of museum or another, often with the intention of excluding various practices as unworthy of the description of a ‘true’ museum. Some of them are indeed aspirational, seeking not to describe what museums are but what they should be But the world of museums is much more diverse, inventive, eccentric and glorious than admitted by narrow and restrictive definitions.
Conventional definitions, as might be expected, have proven especially weak with the advent of the internet and the world wide web. How does one deal with an organization that calls itself a museum but exhibits only online, or one with collections that consist entirely of digital files? A better and more recent definition is that of the International Council of Museums – ICOM (http://icom.museum/the-vision/museum-definition/).
Nevertheless, I think we still need to look for the most basic, the most quintessential definition that is both simple and inclusive. We seek a definition that tells us what the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the National Media Museum (Bradford, UK) and The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, a one room fictional museum from the novel by Sheldon Currie and immortalized in the film, Margaret’s Museum, have in common. Only with such a definition can we begin to grasp the underlying power of the museum concept.
The most pared down, basic and essential definition of that I can devise is: “A museum is a display of a set of entitities that instantiate entities external to the set.”
Let’s unpack this a bit, using more familiar terminology. What the first definition says, in less formal terms, is that “A museum is an exhibition of a collection of entities that instantiate entities in the universe, outside the collection.”
Why do we have to use the relatively unfamiliar terms ‘instantiate’ and ‘entity’ in these definitions? Because of the bewildering diversity of museums themselves. The entities, the items in museum collections, may consist of anything from temples and steam locomotives to micro wasps, almost invisible to the naked eye and collections of digital impressions on computer storage media that can be displayed as images or sounds. In the extreme case, the collection may consist solely of ideas or concepts. Only the term entity is broad enough to encompass this extraordinary range.
The term instantiate means to represent an abstraction or abstract concept by a tangible example. Thus, viewing a single steam locomotive allows one to perceive many of the characteristics (mass, color, structural details) of all steam locomotives. A single beetle specimen clearly represents many of the characteristics of the Order Coleoptera, real beetles that abound outside the museum and are vital elements of the ecosystems that sustain all life, including ours, on the planet. Grainy film footage of a riot or mass conflagration may be the only concrete record of an historic event, even when the original film has been lost and its images exist only as digital files. And that historic record can clearly represent a whole wealth of social history particular to that time and place.
The concept of display or exhibition is also fundamental. A box full of paper bags, each one full of a handful of flint projectile points is not a museum. But take those points out of the bags and arrange them on a set of shelves so they can be seen, and you have a nascent museum. Some of the other museum characteristics often included in definitions, things like study and teaching are not nearly so fundamental. They are praiseworthy objectives of many outstanding museums, but they are not necessary to the bare-bones museum concept.
What is the intention, raison d’etre of the individual or individuals who create a museum? The inclusion of display and exhibit in the definition recognizes the intention of communicating. So the items in the collection are intended to communicate something about the real world outside the museum.
A museum, then, although at its heart is a collection, is not about the collection. It is actually about the outside world that is represented (or instantiated) by the collection.
Moving beyond the basics, the majority of today’s museums are about so much more than collecting and exhibiting. There are multiple museum activities and roles in some of the largest and most complex of organizations. All those roles, however, may be seen as functioning to support the central goal of using collections to communicate.
[Photo by Stephan Weinberger, CC Licence ]