Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, B.C.
Cast of a child who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the ancient city Pompeii as seen at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)

Growing up, going to museums was not a very common outing for my family. I was able to visit a few as school outings, most notably, the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon, Georgia. For me, the rarity of the event made it very special and museums became a kind of magical place of curiosity and learning. The museum I’ve mentioned in Georgia was my favorite as a child because it combined many different aspects of STEAM and had a whole wing that taught kids science topics through interactive exhibits and hands-on learning. As a kid, this was a really fun way to learn topics about physics and other such topics.

As I’ve gotten older, visiting museums (pre-COVID) has become something I really enjoy. I’ve been very lucky to be able to travel with work in my mid-twenties and visit a few different states. My favorite activity when visiting a new state is always visiting the museums in the area. As a biology major, the natural history exhibits have always been my favorite, but as someone who took several years to hammer down my specific interests, I really enjoy branching out and learning about other topics like art history.

Before coming to UAF, my knowledge of museums was limited to the public galleries and exhibits that I’d visited. The past couple of years have been super enlightening as I’ve been able to really learn more about UAMN and what goes on behind-the-scenes at a museum. My first semester I was working with Dr. Cristina Hansen on a project dealing with wildlife disease during which I had the opportunity to visit the Genomics Resources collections to obtain vole kidney samples for research purposes. I took Ornithology with Dr. Kevin Winker and learned about the bird collection. I took Dr. Derek Sikes’ class on Systematics and learned about the entomology collection and the importance of collections in systematics. My current research is with Dr. Andrés López during which I’ve been able to work in the fish genetics lab in the museum. It has been really fun to learn more about the research that goes on by and collaboratively with museums expanding my previous understanding of what a museum is.

I really enjoyed the Museopunks podcast this week about the ICOM definition of a museum. It really helped me reflect on what defines a museum and reasons that it may (or may not) be important to do so. Personally, I liked the newer definition that they discussed. I do agree that it can be restrictive, but one of the guests pointed out that it doesn’t really have much of a legal status and much of the distinction is left to local (whether that be state, federal, etc.) guidelines. What I liked about the newer definition was that it emphasized the role and responsibility that a museum has implicitly to its community. When it comes to public engagement and education, I think it is so important to have discussions about inclusivity and social justice. The “definition” does read more like an overarching mission statement, but I think maybe it should. As an international council that is respected and viewed by the whole museum industry, I think it’s important that they use their platform in order to support the social and cultural responsibility that museums have as the storytellers of the past, present, and future especially in the way of colonialism and its effects.

Speaking of podcasts, I’m so excited to have found a new podcast to listen to, Museopunks, and I can’t wait to listen to more episodes! One of my favorite podcasts, Ologies with Alie Ward, has a “Museology” episode (2018, episode 24) that is worth a listen. (Warning: there is sometimes adult language i.e., cursing. Find it here.)

Q: What did you all think about the ICOM definition debacle? Do you think a redefining is necessary? Do you like the “new” definition or if you wanted to rework it, how would you do so?

4 Thoughts to “What is a Museum”

  1. Michael Hubert

    Tony, listing to the original definition of the museum I felt that it was serving its purpose. but then listen to the new definition and the people that were for a new definition and ones for the old I can see that this was a interesting challenge they have in front of them. can the definition be improved ? especially in todays society? I think that should be looked at to see if it can be improved and also get the input of everyone that they can. But ultimately if they stay with the original or a new one, some people will not be happy no matter what.

  2. Erin Gingrich

    Hello, that is a good question and it was quite interesting to hear the different perspectives in the podcast and what effect any change might have on museums internationally. I feel that it can be challenging to have a definition be as long as a paragraph but that is about how much it takes to describe a museum in my mind. I feel that redefining is necessary and indeed could push museums to do and be better in their practices. While many museums have chosen to examine their practices, histories and collections with a more equitable lens then they might have had in the past not all are doing this. Updating the definition could push them towards practices that are more up to date with our social understandings as a society and provide more equity in the telling of history. That being said, I do not think that the new definition purposed was right yet and is a work in progress that gives a good start. I am unsure of how I would redefine museums just yet but hopefully by the end of this class I will have clearer perspectives about it. Quyana (Thank you)!

  3. Dylan Debuse

    Tony,
    I agree with your opinion on the Museopunks podcast. Its more than likely going to become a regular listen for me.

    as far as redefinition goes, I think if an institution or their patrons feel they need to re-examine the way they do things then they very well should. however as to how they should do some I’m afraid I am not qualified to answer that question.
    Thanks,
    Dylan

  4. Barbara Long

    Good Evening,

    I’ve had Internet connection issues but plan on viewing the Museopunks podcast. I will respond once I’ve listened to it. I do agree that towards the end of the course, my perspectives may have a different outlook with regards to museums and their management
    Respectfully,
    Barbara

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