September 18, 2006

What is a Museum?

This one comes from Found History reader Tim, who wanted to hear my thoughts on NPR’s recent story about the Museum of Online Museums (MOOM), a directory of online collections. Aside from being a treasure trove of found history, MOOM raises the question—at least for NPR’s editors—of what constitutes a museum. Should we or should we not call MOOM’s listings “museums”?

Arguing the affirmative is Jim Coudal, one of MOOM’s founders, who points to one of two definitions of “museum” in Webster’s dictionary: “a place where objects are exhibited.” Arguing the negative, is Wilson O’Donnell, director of the museology program at the University of Wasington, who says that calling MOOM’s listings “museums” is “like calling Wikipedia an encylopedia.” I actually take issue with both lines of reasoning, but ultimately I come down on the side of Coudal and MOOM.

You could say that Coudal and O’Donnell make converse mistakes. On the one hand, Coudal employs a definition that is too vague and too broad and leaves the museum without a distinct identity. If anyplace that displays objects is a museum, then we should consider department stores, the Home Shopping Network, the fun house at the county fair, the row of expensive whiskeys behind the bar, the auto show, and a million other things “museums.” Historians of museums know that our modern notion of the museum was born out of a 19th century “exhibitionary culture” that included things like World’s Fairs and department stores, as well as museums. But no one mistakes Macy’s for the Met.

O’Donnell, on the other hand, makes the opposite mistake, attempting to reify and dehistoricize the museum. In fact, things called “museums” have been around in one form or another for 400 years, and for most of that time they have borne little resemblance to our modern museums. I’m not sure whether it is Wikipedia’s amateurism or its unfamiliar digital format that irks O’Donnell, but the truth is that for much of their history, museums were both largely amateur endeavors and existed in formats that would be unfamiliar to us today. Many of the great European museums (the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford are good examples) were founded as private collections in private homes and were organized around criteria and displayed in formats that today would seem very foreign indeed.

For my part, I’d pick Webster’s second definition: “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” I probably have to think about this more, but to me it’s not the simple act of display, nor is it “professionalism,” that makes something a museum. Rather it is the collection and display of stuff with a preservative intent and historical mindset that makes a museum. That is, by my definition, MOOM’s “museums” are really museums … and all museums are pieces of found history.

Apologies to Tim for the long delay in answering his very good question.


  1. No apologies needed. I found the whole “what constitutes a museum?” angle of the story a bit odd. They should have spent less time discussing semantics and more time highlighting some of the sites that make up MOOM.

  2. Good idea. We were glad to take part in the story but found the ‘museum/not a museum” angle a bit overdone. However all is forgiven by the “Hellll-o Baby” section at the end of the NPR story. Thanks for paying attention. Jim

  3. The UK Museums Association has a great agreed definition of a museum. Basically, a museum is somewhere that collects, cares for and interprets artefacts.

    Museums have been around for longer than 400 years. Many people believe that in the 6thC BC Babylonian city of Ur, the King?s daughter was a priestess and teacher in the temple. Excavation of the archaeological site showed the room next to temple had collection of artefacts, inscriptions of 21stC BC tablets ? evidence of a museum for the school.

    The Tradescant’s museum (later the collection in the Ashmolean, Oxford Uni) was a private collection but I believe it was specifically used to generate an income from admissions – as many museums do today.

  4. Fast forward to 2014 and now we’re asking what is an ‘online museum’? – as opposed to just a website with captioned pictures. It makes a difference as the US Institute for Museum and Library Services comes up for federal reauthorization in 2016. At present IMLS can fund ‘virtual libraries’ but not ‘virtual museums’. Its museum definition includes physical exhibits the public can walk into. Please join our discussion at

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