What counts as a museum?

You cannot set out with a goal to visit a new museum every single week without giving consideration to what, exactly, counts as a museum.

This question is one I have explored in other posts, and as I plan for a possible third round of Weekly Museum Visits (my current full-time job ends September 29), it continues to vex, prod, demand clear-cut definitions and categories.

The American Association of Museums states that museums “include both governmental and private museums of anthropology, art history and natural history, aquariums, arboreta, art centers, botanical gardens, children’s museums, historic sites, nature centers, planetariums, science and technology centers, and zoos.” For my part, I always counted places like arboreta and botanical gardens. As a museum educator, I was interested in any site with a collection (living or inanimate) and potential for informal learning.

Still, as I make a list of potential places to visit and blog about, I run into the following questions:

  • Do all national parks count as museums? Even the occasional blocks of green space in DC?
  • If national parks count, what about state and local parks?
  • If art museums definitely count, what about art centers? Art galleries?
  • Can a sensory garden or planetarium be a museum unto itself, or does it need to be part of a larger institution with more museum-like characteristics?
  • Which historic houses of worship count as museums? Only the ones with exhibits (like Washington National Cathedral)? Or any that have old art or architecture? Any that give tours and have a role as a visitor attraction?
  • Can any government building that gives tours and/or has some old valuable art and/or has an exhibit about itself in the lobby count as a museum?
  • What about cases in which one museum has multiple buildings (National Gallery of Art) or one building has multiple museums (National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum)?
  • Can a monument or memorial plus its visitor center count as a museum? Do all the Mall monuments count as individual museums, one collective museum, or no museum at all?
  • Can a historic house that is not set up as a museum still count, if part of it serves as a visitor information center or gift shop?
  • DC has a lot of Civil War forts; can these be counted as museums?
  • What about a community center or a library with a room for displaying art?
  • How about private collections that can be seen by appointment only? What about a random person who bills their den full of squirrel knickknacks as a museum open to the public?
  • Do farms and petting zoos count? Military bases? Campgrounds? Cemeteries? Performing arts venues? Embassies? Visionary art environments? Labyrinths? Corn mazes? Dog parks? Carillons? (This list could go on for a while.)
  • Does a visit to some places (say, a church or a forest) only count if you take a tour or read a brochure as you go? Do you have to know you are looking at a collection in order for it to count as such?

Although I am aware that such questions are largely a manifestation of the unique ways in which my mind works, I am also curious to hear how others in the museum field would answer these questions. What, exactly, does the museum world count as a museum?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts!


August’s blog theme is Museum Categories.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What counts as a museum?

  1. According to the ICOM Statutes, adopted during the 21st General Conference in Vienna, Austria, in 2007:
    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.
    This definition is a reference in the international community
    Taken from http://icom.museum/the-vision/museum-definition/

    I’m not sure if the above helps but I personally think some of the private collections are very important. I guess everyone has a different definition, I agree with you that anywhere with potential for informal learning is a winner.

    • Laura DiSciullo says:

      Thanks for your comment! I read that definition as well. According to this definition, for-profit institutions do not count – but I do not automatically discard for-profits, and one for-profit was one of my Weekly Museum Visits.

      Must a museum be a non-profit (or government-funded) in order to count as a museum?

  2. I don’t think so. It’s probably just a way for them to organise their structure rather than an ultimate definition. Last year I was disappointed by the level of organisation in promoting ‘International Museum Day’ and ICOM aren’t even on twitter…
    Its a tricky question 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s