Factsheet Museum Definition

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has been working on a new museum definition from 2018-2022. This was adopted by an overwhelming majority (92%) at the ICOM General Conference in Prague in August 2022. The new definition reads:

“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

This fact sheet provides more background information on the content of the discussion, the process towards the new museum definition and the members' role in it.

Previous history

The previous definition dated from 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.”

During the ICOM General Conference in Kyoto (2019), a new definition was presented earlier. The decision on this was postponed after a chaotic voting round, partly in order to have a more bottom up discussion from the members on what a museum is and wants to be. The new definition turns out to be a sensitive issue in the museum world. After all, by defining what a museum is, you also determine which museums you exclude and which you do not. This makes it an identity issue, linked to status and therefore often to funding and even legal status. In many countries, the ICOM definition is regarded as an international standard and is used as a yardstick for internal regulations and the granting of subsidies.

Committees: MDPP > ICOM Define

ICOM is a worldwide association with a matrix structure. The members are grouped per country in 118 National Committees. Individually, they can join one of the 34 thematic International Committees and meet colleagues from other countries. In addition, there are Standing Committees (working groups) that deal with structural issues. The 2018 ICOM General Assembly established a Standing Committee for Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP) to review the museum definition. This working group was renamed ICOM Define in December 2020.

The route to a new definition - up to Kyoto

The MDPP talked to some of the National and International Committees and started a communication process aimed at all 45,000 ICOM members. Everyone's input was welcome. Gradually, it was concluded that many young museum initiatives have a strong social focus. Certainly outside of Europe, structural attention is regularly paid to decolonisation, threatened nature and heritage, emancipation of indigenous peoples and victims of political repression. The MDPP wanted to include these social trends in the new definition. It formulated five different definitions to present to the members, one of which was presented by the central ICOM Executive Board during the Extraordinary General Assembly in Kyoto. Six weeks before the members' meeting, this 2019 definition was distributed to the committees. The 2019 definition differs significantly from that of 2007:

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."

2019: "Museums are democratizing, 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 artifacts 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 discussion of the new museum definition at the 2019 members' meeting in Kyoto was tumultuous. The new socially-oriented approach was experienced by several members as politicising. Sensitive points within ICOM were touched upon: traditional European and 'white' dominance, conservative counter-pressure from collection-oriented museums, self-censorship from authoritarian countries, progressive currents in liberal countries, fear of losing subsidies, procedural manoeuvres, communication shortcomings, dominance of the English language... and especially the short time there was to consult everyone's supporters. All elements that caused strong emotions. It was a memorable Extraordinary General Assembly for all those present.

The outcome of the discussion in Kyoto was the best possible: the agenda item was postponed to allow more opportunity for each committee to discuss the museum definition and then to arrive at a new wording with a broader base of support.

After Kyoto - MDPP2

ICOM expanded the MDPP committee in January 2020 with a large number of participants from various international and national committees who also represent various viewpoints. ICOM The Netherlands was one of the selected committees and former chair Luc Eekhout joined this 'MDPP2'.

The MDPP2 was soon faced with problems. First of all because of the corona crisis, but also dissatisfaction with the communication with the central ICOM leadership and mutual friction increased. In June 2020, the bomb burst and MDPP2 chair Jette Sandahl resigned, along with several members of the working group (including Luc Eekhout). And within days this led to a crisis in ICOM, including the resignation of ICOM President Suay Aksoy and several other members of the Executive Board. The tension surrounding the museum definition had exposed a much deeper irritation about the governance culture in ICOM. Since then, a lot has happened in the ICOM ranks and work is being done to create a more open organisation with more interaction with its members, also online. In this light, a new roadmap for the museum definition was presented in December 2020.

ICOM Define and a new timetable

In December 2020, the MDPP2, renamed ICOM Define, presented an eleven-step route to the proposal voted on at the ICOM General Conference in Prague in 2022. Below, the steps are listed in a diagram. You can see the full roadmap here. Part of the steps consists of consulting the members, via all committees within ICOM. ICOM Nederland has also involved the members and, based on that, has issued concrete advice.

The roadmap of ICOM Define

Step Period  From ICOM Define Actions of ICOM Netherlands
1 10 Dec '20 Launch of Methodology
Webinar and launch of gathering place on ICOM Member Space.
Amended info.
2 Before 10 Jan '21 Consultation 1: Results post Kyoto
Collect what each committee has already done. 
Send documents and requested 100-word summary. 
3 Jan-April '21 Consultation 2: Keywords and concepts
Ask each committee to choose 20 keywords/concepts that the members feel should definatively be included in the new definition + brief explanation.
Organise consultation among members and other stakeholders. Process results. 
4 April-June '21 Quantitative and Qualitative analysis
External research agency to work with the reports of consultation 2. 
5 June-July '21 Preparation and publication of results consultation 2
Leading to a report
6 July-Sept '21 Consultation 3: Evaluation of key words and concepts
Consult committees on the results of the report. Ask them: what do you think of the report, submit any amandments and preferably max. 3 new key words/concepts. Also indicate what you are truly for/against or what would be acceptable with adjustments.
Organise consultation among members and other stakeholders. Process results. 
7 Sept-Nov '21 Data analysis of consultation 3
Leading to a report. 
8 Nov-De '21 ICOM Define drafts proposals
Subgroups of ICOM Define prepare proposals. Leading to 14 proposals. 
9 Dec-Feb '21 ICOM Define discussion on proposals
From 14 to 8 or 10 proposals, choosing approx. 5 of them. 
10 Feb-April '22 Consultation 4: publication of proposals
Committees form their opinion on these approx. 5 proposals and indicate a preference for approx. 2.
Determine the form for consultation / voting and organise it. Indicate our preference for 1 or 2 proposals in the form. 
11 April-May '22 ICOM Define final report
Formal recommendations from ICOM Define to Executive Board, with 2 or 3 proposals. 
12 Aug '22 Prague: voting Cast 5 votes.

In the Netherlands

ICOM Netherlands also actively contributes to the definition process at various moments. We would like to take this opportunity to go into more depth in the discussions about what a museum is, should or could be in our own country. After all, when do you get the opportunity to work so fundamentally on the basis of your profession?

We stimulated this discussion among our own (over 6.000) members, but also with non-members from the Dutch museum world. Compared to many other countries, the Netherlands has a rich museum landscape. The Dutch Museum Association functions as a representative for museums and, together with the LCM (Museum Advisors in the Netherlands) is responsible for the Museum Standard. The current ICOM definition is part of the Museum Standard, against which a museum is tested when it is included in the Museum Register. Furthermore, various umbrella organizations, federations and other alliances also develop meaningful museum activities.

Already held:

  • Erfgoedarena ‘Game Changers’: 29. January 2020, 20:00 at the Reinwardt Academy.
  • Work session and networking gathering for ICOM Netherlands members: 6. February 2020 at Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.
  • Open Zoom sessions on 23 and 25 March 2021.
  • Open Zoom sessions on 27 and 31 August 2021.
  • Open Zoom sessions on 22 and 30 March 2022.


  • In the spring of 2021, we asked you to think about which key terms and concepts we would like to see in the new definition. The same happened in other National Committees worldwide. Based on all the submissions, ICOM Define formulated this report (july 2021). 
  • Read the report and analysis of the working session on 6 Februari 2020.
  • ICOM Define Report (July 2021)

Contact working group museum definition ICOM Netherlands

Amanda Vollenweider