Kajsa Hartig

A blog about Cultural Heritage and Digital Communication

What is in fact a museum?

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Every now and then I come across situations where museums and museum-like institutions interact on the same premises. I am then often referred to the definition of a museum according to ICOM:

”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.”

The words ”acquires” and ”conserves” the tangible and intangible heritage catch my eye. To acquire something means that you collect, wether it may be objects or stories, photographs or songs.

However there are both institutions and organizations that, to the general public, are perceived as museums, but as they don’t collect, they are not defined as museums. For example, in France there is Cité de l’Espace, in Toulouse, that doesn’t use the word museum anywhere, but have exhibitions very similar to a museum of natural history, a science museum or even a children’s museum.

There are historical sites like caves with 14 000 year old paintings, that have a higher ambition than just to entertain or give an experience. (And then there’s in fact the museum showing replicas of the very same paintings, telling stories about the people who lived in the caves.)

And there are historical sites like the castle of Chenonceau, Indre et Loire, that perpahs don’t necessarily have the ambition to educate the visitors, but rather give a memorable experience.

Château Chenonceau, France, 2010.

In Sweden there is the Fotografiska, a center for contemporary photography, who doesn’t define itself as a museum but calls itself ”not an ordinary museum”.

To the general visitor, the experience is pretty much the same. Therefore the ICOM definition of a museum is often irrelevant.

Ofcourse the museum has a different goal, especially within education. There are resources set aside especially for schools etc. The pure historical site, or tourist attraction, will not have the same ambitions. On the other hand Cité de l’Espace does receive school classes, just like any museum.

Again if we ask the visitors, not ICOM, isn’t it fact so  that not only is the difference between the ”attraction” or ”historical site” and the museum in many cases irrelevant, the expectations on both experiences might in fact be the same. There is a desire to be entertained, have a memorable experience, but also a desire to learn something. This is possible in museums, but also at historical sites like the Pyrenéan caves that preserve and communicate paintings.

That is why I am interested in these ”almost museums”. How do they attract visitors? How do they communicate in the digital world? And what can we learn from each other? And to what extent does the definition matter when talking about digital communication?.

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