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Defining a museum

Defining a museum

The museum as we know it has come a long way from the conception of museums in the 19th century. The ‘typical’ museum remains to this day in the form of large institutional museums, but other forms of heritage related site are now also finding themselves under the banner of ‘museums’. The question I find myself asking, is whether the definition of museums is actually changing, or are we developing our personal understanding of museums.

The dictionary definition of a museum states that a museum is ‘a building where objects of historical, scientific, or artistic interest are kept’. This definition does indeed fit the image of the typical museums such as the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. It does not however fit the numerous heritage sites, such as Stonehenge, that can be considered to be a museum, or the many National Trust properties, or the Science Centres which are considered alongside such national institutions. Why do we consider these sites to be museums?

Although many of these sites do hold factors of the museum, such as the many artefacts that make up the displays, many also have characteristics which are not typical of a museum. Take the English Heritage site, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, for example; the standing stones themselves are definitely not a museum, but the rest of the site, including a roundhouse village, and an audio-visual 360-degree video of the stones throughout the seasons, definitively is a museum. Although sites such as this are developing rapidly in the modern world, they do not really comply with the definition of a museum; the mission statements of such organisations as English Heritage do not name their sites as museums, but it appears under general consensus that such places are considered to be so by the general public.

The National Trust appears in the same category, although not branding themselves as a museum, they are by default considered to be a museum through their collections and displays. Although the National Trust is now challenging the image of ‘look but don’t touch’, take the Kedleston State Bed project as a perfect example, many of the stately homes owned by the trust are presented as museums, showing exhibits from the time in which these properties were in their prime.

Finally, take Science Centres into consideration. By name, they are not museums, but by the contents of these Centres alone, they can definitely be considered to be museums, but their focus can often be considered to be more on learning and education than the care of their exhibits. Does this then make them not true museums?

For me, the definition of a museum is outdated – we now live in a world where the term museum covers a vast range of sites, not exclusively those dedicated to the collection and preservation of artefacts alone. Consider the National Holocaust Centre, whose Forever Project will allow children to ask questions of holographical holocaust survivors when none remain to answer them in person. The site considers itself to be a museum through the artefacts it holds, and through the educational work it carries out. Museums such as these present the image the way in which museums are developing to utilise modern technology and challenge issues.

The definition of the museum has definitely changed since the early days of the museum in Europe. The issue is now how we can define museums, when the phrase covers such a range of different sites. In order to take every possible image of the museum into account, any definition must now cover a much broader spectrum, encompassing much more than simply those buildings who hold objects of interest.

By Hollie Davison, Resilience Syndicate Project Manager

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