Museums, which are centres for conservation, study and reflection on heritage and culture, can no longer stand aloof from the major issues of our time. Yet museums have not always existed, being of fairly recent origin in the cultural history of humanity. So what are museums today and what is their purpose?
The definition of museums has changed course in the two centuries since they came into existence. Today they are "non-profit-making, permanent institutions in the service of society and its development, and open to the public, which acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibit, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment". Long associated with the tastes of European monarchy, collections of objects can be found in most cultures. They bear out a relationship with the past that attaches value to tangible traces left by our ancestors, and aim to protect them and even make them essential to the functioning of human society. Side by side with the monumental heritage, such collections now constitute the major part of what is universally known as the cultural heritage.
The museological heritage is both an actor and an instrument of dialogue between nations and of a common international vision aimed at cultural development. The latter may vary considerably in nature and form, depending on the historical and cultural context.
A museum’s primary purpose is to safeguard and preserve the heritage as a whole. It carries out whatever scientific study is required to understand and establish both its meaning and its possession. In this sense, it helps in the preparation of a global ethic based on practice for the conservation, protection and diffusion of cultural heritage values. A museum’s educational mission, whatever its nature, is every bit as important as its scientific work.
A museum also presents the interactions between culture and nature: an increasing number of museums are focusing their interest on science, natural science and technology.
Finally, a museum works for the endogenous development of social communities whose testimonies it conserves while lending a voice to their cultural aspirations. Resolutely turned towards its public, community museums are attentive to social and cultural change and help us to present our identity and diversity in an ever-changing world.