The International Council of Museums is redefining the word “museum”.

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For the first time in 15 years, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a not-for-profit organization that makes recommendations and sets standards worldwide, has updated its definition of the word museum. After years of debate about how ideological the definition should be, the final text includes new language about museums being ethical, diverse, accessible, inclusive and sustainable.

The new definition, endorsed by 92 percent of participants at the ICOM General Conference in Prague on Wednesday, describes a museum as “a non-profit, permanent establishment serving society that explores, collects, preserves, interprets tangible and intangible things.” and exhibits heritage.” The notable changes come in the last two sentences, which read: “Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums promote diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with community participation and offer diverse experiences for education, pleasure, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

In a statement, ICOM President Alberto Garlandini acknowledged that the definition was “not perfect” but still called it “a big step forward”. The previous definition, which has been in effect since 2007, was only one sentence long. Prior to 2007, the previous definition had not changed in 30 years.

The word “museum” comes from Greek and means “seat of the muses” and refers to mythological figures associated with creative inspiration.

Challenging rather than prescriptive, the updated language comes at a difficult time for museums undergoing a comprehensive cultural tally that has touched nearly every level of their operations, from decisions about funding to what is displayed in their galleries. The new definition reflects that assessment, but some critics say it doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge the museums’ complicated history of centering white, male, and Western perspectives.

In recent years, the museum world has been plagued by accusations of “toxic philanthropy” for receiving funds from such controversial patrons as the Sackler and Koch families. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 prompted renewed scrutiny of museums for their lack of diversity, both among museum staff and the objects in their collections. More recently, controversies over stolen artifacts have prompted some museums to return looted artifacts — such as the Smithsonian’s decision to return Benin Kingdom Court-style artworks to their home country in Nigeria. However, other works with complicated histories remain in some museum collections.

As these debates continue, the definition raises questions about how institutions are held accountable. Similar to the United Nations, but for museums, ICOM can make recommendations but does not have the power to enforce compliance. And in the United States, where many museums are privately owned, his guidelines don’t carry much weight.

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However, in countries with predominantly state-run museums, the definition can potentially have a significant impact on governments deciding which museums and projects are eligible for funding. “That was part of the push to make sure they got it right,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. “It would have real implications for many museums if it inadvertently said the wrong thing about what museums are or pointed to a museum’s past.”

Lott, who attended the Prague conference, praised ICOM’s formulation. “It’s a timely reflection of the reality that the roles of museums are diverse and many are changing,” she said. “I also find a lot of hope that dozens of nations representing thousands of museums have come together and found a common definition.”

Lott points to the Oakland Museum of California for his “introspective work on himself and the community” and the Phillips Collection in Washington, which hired one of the first diversity commissioners in the museum industry, as examples of museums that embody the principles outlined in the definition .

Others have noted that the definition – which is making strides in opening up a tradition-bound field for self-assessment – can have an impact Culture.

Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, which began her tenure in 2019 with a vision for reform and reinvention, commended ICOM for its efforts.

“I appreciate the challenge they had in developing the new statement — a reflection of the breadth of institutions represented by ICOM,” Feldman said in a statement provided to the Washington Post. “It’s a complicated time for museums as audiences and communities expect more relevance, accessibility and transparency from them. The definition is also challenging, which gives me great hope for the field.”

The revised wording has been a long time coming. In 2019, ICOM proposed an even longer definition that called museums “democratizing, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future,” called on museums “to preserve diverse memories” and “to human dignity and social justice contribute to global equality and planetary well-being.” It was dismissed as a bloated manifesto, using trendy rhetoric, and not doing enough to differentiate museums from other cultural institutions.

Also, some are not so happy about where ICOM has landed now. As Laura Raicovich, author of Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, told ARTnews. “It would have been a much more important shift for ICOM to recognize that museums are not, and never have been, neutral.”

ICOM, a membership-based organization headquartered in Paris, has 40,000 members from 141 countries. Founded in the 1940s, ICOM bills itself as the only global museum organization. It publishes research, conducts training, issues codes of ethics, and maintains a “Red List” database that flags cultural objects at risk of theft and trafficking so police and customs officials can identify them.

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