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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #58: January 5, 2005

Museum Education: Part 1 - Definitions of Museum

Jack Hiroki IGUCHI (Professor, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Aomori University, Japan)



Before discussing museum education, we should make sure of the definition of "museum". It is necessary to begin with an understanding of what a museum is (Burcaw 1990: 3). This is vitally important, because most people think that a museum, in short, is a building which exhibits some old objects. (1)  There is some truth in the notion. However it sounds too scientific and dull. Similarly the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary suggests that a museum is "a building in which objects of artistic, cultural, historical or scientific importance and interest are displayed" (Hornby 1990: 816). Needless to say, a dictionary describes the meaning of a word concisely, so the description is not always relevant to helping readers understand the whole meaning. The problem with these definitions is, firstly, a museum is not always in a building; secondly, it aims at educationally affecting the general public; and thirdly it also offers recreational opportunities to the public. In addition、 it is important to research other definitions.
(1) The author's interviews with a variety of people in London, 1992-3.


There have been many definitions of a museum over time and throughout the world. For instance, George Brown Goode mentioned the definition at a general meeting of British museums in 1895:

    "A museum is an institution for the preservation of those objects which best illustrate the phenomena of nature and the works of man, and the utilization of these for the increase in knowledge and for the culture and enlightenment of the people" (Burcaw 1990: 9).

This idea emphasizes the enlightenment of the people, and also does not insist that the institution is a building.

Nearly one century later Goode had defined a museum in 1989, 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" (ICOM International Council of Museums Statutes 1990: 3).

Also, the term "institution" is defined by ICOM as follows: in short,

    1. Natural, archaeological, ethnographic, historical monuments and sites.
    2. Botanical and zoological gardens, aquaria and vivaria.
    3. Science centres and planetaria.
    4. Conservation institutes and exhibition galleries permanently maintained by libraries and archive centres.
    5. Nature reserves.

This definition improves on that of George Brown Goode. It clearly describes the function of museums to:

    a) exhibit to the public for their enjoyment.
    b) include many types of institutes such as botanical, zoological gardens and aquaria.

It means that museums exist not only for academic study for school children, scientists and curious persons, but also for the delight of the general public.

Also museums include a wide range of enjoyable facilities which keep living things and rear them.

The word "museum" comes from a mouseion in classical Greece (in Greek myth) which was a place of contemplation, a philosophical institution or a temple of the Muses (Lewis G. 1992 : 5) who are the nine goddesses, daughters of Zeus or Jupiter (2), who protected and encouraged poetry, music, dancing, history and other branches of art and literature (Hornby, 1990: 816). That is to say, originally museums meant that the places for not only philosophical discussion but also for enjoyment such as dancing or singing. After the fifteenth century, the term began to be used to describe a collection in Renaissance Florence and then it carried with it connotations of comprehensiveness and encyclopaedic knowledge (Lewis G. 1992: 5).
(2) They are Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polyhymnia and Urania (Matsuda T. 1984: 1455).

The ICOM definition seems to have accepted the original idea of a museum and developed it for public education and enjoyment.


The definition of a museum in each country differs slightly. According to the American Association of Museums in 1962:

    "A museum is a non-profit permanent establishment, not existing primarily for the purpose of conducting temporary exhibitions, exempt from federal and state income taxes, open to the public and administered in the public interest, for the purpose of conserving and preserving, studying, interpreting, assembling, and exhibiting to the public for its instruction and enjoyment objects and specimens of educational and cultural value, including artistic, scientific (whether animate of inanimate), historical, and technological material. Museums thus defined shall include botanical gardens, zoological parks, aquaria, planetaria, historical societies, and historic houses and sites which meet the requirements set forth in the preceding sentence "(Burcaw G. 1990: 10).

The Canadian Museums Association officially adapted this definition with minor changes. These definitions are quite similar to that of the ICOM. It particularly emphasizes:

    1. Public benefit
    2. The inclusion of a wide range of institutes

The Japanese definition is shorter than the above. However it states all the basic functions of a museum in one paragraph.
A museum is an institution which collects and preserves material concerned with history, art, anthropology, industry, natural history, and so on, and exhibits them to the general public from an educational point of view, and carries out projects needed to contribute to the public education, study and recreation, and also it researches on the materials (Museum Law translated by this author).

This definition does not mention the range of institutions exactly in the main paragraph. However if some institution follows this definition, it should be called a museum. It means that the range of museums is very wide. Also public benefit is regarded as the top priority.

Finally the English definition (adopted by MA− Museum Association) is as follows:

A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit (Barbour S. 1992: 436).
This is particularly brief and concise, but in the same publication, each element (eg. Institution) is fully explored. This definition, too, complies with the significance of that from the ICOM. Especially this author feels that an important additional element of this definition is that "Museums are the servants of society".

All these definitions describe very clearly the objectives of a museum. If so, "Does each museum run its institution following these objectives?". In order to know how museums run, it is important to look into the mission statements of some museums.


Two major UK museums have the following mission statements.

    1. The Natural History Museum (NHM)
    The mission of the NHM is to promote the understanding and enjoyment of the variety of our natural world through high quality exhibitions, education and science (The Natural History Museum, 1992).
    2. The National Museum of Science and Industry (The Science Museum)
    The mission of this museum is to be the nation's leading centre for the public understanding of science by caring for, presenting and interpreting the national collections of science, technology and medicine (quoted by Mazda X. 1993).

These two museums clearly state their mission using a short paragraph. Needless to say, it is the primary task of the Director of a museum to define the purpose of the museum and to clarify the aims and objectives later to be expressed in tangible forms in programmes and actions (Thompson J. 1992: 135).


From those definitions and the nature of mission statements, this author wants to summarize and reforms it slightly to help develop new museology. This is an follows.

A museum is a non−profit making, permanent institution which collects, preserves and researches material evidence of people and / or their environment, and exhibits them to the general public from an educational point of view, and carries out projects needed to contribute to public education, study and recreation. It includes art galleries, botanical and zoological parks, aquaria, planetaria, historic houses and sites, and others which have the above characteristics. This ultimate objective is to facilitate the peaceful coexistence between human beings and the natural world.

Firstly, this definition emphasizes a non−profit making institution which is mentioned in the ICOM definition. It means that, for instance, a museum is not like a curio exhibition for artists to sell objects. Secondly, the description, material evidence of people and their environment (ICOM definition) adequately includes the whole range of museum research. So, the definition needs not describe each subject such as history or art. Thirdly it might be a good idea to describe some institutions which belong to museums in the main paragraph such as botanical and zoological parks, since such institutions arguably could be readily forgotten.

However, the author eliminated the term "communication" from the ICOM definition. The reason is as follows. Of course, communication is a vital task for museums. For instance, the Museum Association Policy Statement presented to the conference in Glasgow (1990) stated that museums should be assessed in three new areas : Curation, Operation and Communication (Hooper−Greenhill, 1991: 8). However, museums communicate in a number of different ways such as educational exhibitions, publicity and marketing. The term "communication" is a complex world and concept for museum staff. Therefore if the definition uses two technical terms, communication and education, at the same level, it might confuse the reader. Within the functions of communication, the most obvious method is educational exhibitions and activities. That is why this author wants to use the word "education" as representative of communication in his definition.

In addition, this author accepts a planetarium as a museum with difficulty. The reason is as follows. The vital task of museums should be, in short, (1) collection, (2) education. In considering the formation of a new museum, we must start with the collection (Owen D.E. 1988: 1). A planetarium is, however, a machine which projects tiny spots of light on a domed ceiling to represent the stars and planets, and the building which houses such a projector (Burcaw G. 1990: 8). This means that a planetarium might not collect any object such as old astronomical manuscripts, meteoric stones and so on. However, as a place for presenting the results of research into people's environments (see ICOM definition), we can accept it as a sort of museum which situates on the border of the museum definition (this idea comes from Professor Tsuruta, a committee member of ICOM, on his lecture at Hosei University in Tokyo, 1988).

Finally, this author adds that the ultimate objective of museums is "to facilitate the peaceful coexistence between human beings and the natural world". This is his original idea, but basically this idea may have been a dormant element of museum philosophy, therefore he wants to bring it to light, and carry it out. Needless to say, this author believes that education is the most important task as museums, hence, throughout this thesis, this subject will be highlighted and the evidence of the subject will be evaluated from various angles.

A 19th century show case museum, the Fossil Fish Gallery of the NHM, London in 1923, Secretary of the United States Treasury (Miles R.S. 1988, The Design of Educational Exhibitions)
A 19th century show case museum, the Fossil Fish Gallery
of the NHM, London in 1923
(Miles R.S. 1988, The Design of Educational Exhibitions)


Barbour S., 1992, Museums Year Books, 1992−93, ma: 436.
Burcaw G.E., 1990, Introduction to Museum Work, aaslh (The American Association for State and Local History), Nashville: 3,8,9,10.
Hooper−Greenhill E., 1991, Museum Studies, Communication 1, 1990−1991 session, Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester: 8.
Hornby A.S., 1990, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Oxford University Press : 816.
ICOM (International Council of Museums), 1990, ICOM Statutes : Code of Professional Ethics : 3.
Lewis G., 1992, Museums and Their Precursors : A Brief World Survey, Manual of Curatorship, BH : 5.
Matsuda T., 1984, English−Japanese Dictionary for the General Reader, Kenkyusha (Japan) : 1455.
Mazda X., 1993, A letter from Mazda (Science Museum, London) to this author.
Owen D.E., 1988, AIM Guidelines, No12, Setting Up and Running a New Museum, AIM : 1.
The Natural History Museum (London) 1992, Corporate Plan 1992−97 : 2,4,9.
Thompson J., 1992, The Role of the Director, Manual of Curatorship, ma : 135.

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