What makes a museum a museum?

This post was researched and written by Haley Coopersmith.

When you hear the word “museum” what comes to mind? Gilded reliquaries filled with the bones of biblical saints? Fiji mermaids, human skulls, and marble busts in glass cases? Or maybe rooms stuffed to the brim with a variety of taxidermy specimens and fossilized remains from far off lands and prehistoric times? These might describe a museum historically, but they’re a far cry from any description of the Museum at Eldridge Street. In the 1800s, those descriptions are exactly what someone might have used to identify a museum. But today? Museums have come a long way from stuffy rooms and cabinets of curiosity. And the term “museum” has come to describe a myriad of experiences.

Over centuries, museums have developed from those small collections of religious, scientific, or personal items and evolved into institutions that catered to “public” education in a variety of fields such as art, science, history, and natural history. I have put “public” in quotation marks because the earliest museums catered exclusively to the upper and middle classes, and exclusively to white people; those with ample time for leisure and the finances to afford admission. And in some cases, issues of access and equity in museums still exclude large portions of the public.

Cabinets of Curiosity became popular during the Northern Renaissance but were at their apex in the Victorian era. [via Mental Floss]

This evolution in size and scale has given birth to so many different types of museums. There are historic house museums, university museums, natural history museums, zoos, art museums, and museums like ours at Eldridge Street, that tell a cultural story of a place, time or people. Each museum is unique, yet they all share a similar set of ideals or goals – to share some piece of the world with others.

Can we all agree on an official definition though? The International Council of Museums (ICOM) recently proposed a new definition for “Museum” and museum professionals across the world are weighing in. Here’s ICOM’s proposal:

“Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

The Phoenix Children’s Museum prizes fun, play, and inclusivity above all.

When this definition was published on July 26, 2019, I immediately started thinking about the history of museums and how best to define them. Could there even be a definition that worked for ALL museums, considering how diverse they can be from one another? I think first and foremost about our museum’s founding. The Museum at Eldridge Street was initially founded as the Eldridge Street Project, since its main goal at the time was a historic restoration. We received museum status after the “project” was complete. The organization went through a lengthy process to prove we were an appropriate site for the “museum” moniker, yet we are SO different from MoMA or the Natural History Museum (who presumably went through the same process that we did).

What do you think of the definition? ICOM asked their members to vote on it at their annual conference in September 2019, but the vote has been delayed after considerable backlash. Eldridge Street’s Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Eva Brune, likes this definition, although she thinks it is missing something: education. Education is alluded to when the definition says “they are participatory,” yet education is not explicitly mentioned. Manager of Education, Rachel Serkin, would define a museum as “a place that uses space, objects and stories to move, challenge and teach you all at the same time.” Manager of Visitor Services and Operations, Brad Shaw, agrees: he believes that museums are engaging places where visitors can come to learn from facilitators and educators without the barriers of formal education. Here at Eldridge Street, we clearly place a high value on the educational experience that visitors have. We hope that comes across when you visit the museum.

Some museums are constructed specifically to house one item. In Xi’an, China this domed roof was built over an excavation site that uncovered this vast army of terra cotta figures. It welcomes 1.3 million annual visitors. [via Smithsonian Magazine]

I am currently in a master’s program studying museum education and museum leadership. Museums are some of my favorite places on Earth, so I might be a bit biased; however, I think that museums have the potential to be educational, accessible, and inclusive spaces. My definition of a museum would be: An inclusive and accessible educational space for all learners. The definition would grow depending on if the museum focused on art, culture, natural history, or some other topic, but at the base level, I believe that museums should be inclusive and accessible to all and I truly believe that they can be with the right leadership and programs.

How would you define a museum? Leave us a comment and join the discussion! Check back to see what other visitors to the museum think and come visit us in person soon to experience all that the Museum has to offer.


Haley Coopersmith is the Museum’s Manager of Public Programs.

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