Defining the Museum of the 21st Century: Evolving Multiculturalism in Museums in the United States

A Symposium Organized and Hosted by the International Committee for Museology and Southern New Hampshire University's History/Public History Program

Online September 14, 2018

Primary contact: Dr. Yun Shun Susie Chung, y.chung1@snhu.edu

Call for Papers

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has called for a new definition of "museum" for the 21st century world.[1] In response, the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM) has hosted symposia around the world to discuss and debate local perspectives on the museum as an institution and on the practices of museology.[2] These symposia have sparked debate and discussion about the definition of "museum" in France, China, Argentina, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. On September 14, 2018, ICOFOM and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) will host the latest symposium to discuss and define the "museum" from the perspective of the United States. This symposium will include three themes:

1. Nation-Building in Museums in the United States

The United States began as a colony of immigrants who seized land from the native peoples, but it has evolved into a multicultural nation that is, for the most part and with some exceptions, welcoming to people from around the world. What does it mean to be a “nation” in such a historical context, and how do museums help play a role in defining the nation? How will that role change for museums in the 21st century? How can the new ICOM definition of “museum” address the political, legal, administrative, and funding issues of the museum in a nation with different state and local laws, ordinances, and standards?

2. Collecting Tangible and Intangible Heritage in Museums in the United States

Since the 18th century, literary and philosophical society museums have moved beyond the gentlemanly collection of artificialia and naturalia, and there is widespread debate about what types of artifacts and naturfacts museums should collect and display and what types should be deaccessioned. How should museums prioritize physical and digital artifacts and naturfacts in the 21st century United States? How should museums handle intangible or digital artifacts and naturfacts such as oral histories and Living Human Treasures?[3] Will physical museums continue to exist, or will we someday see only online collections of artifacts and naturfacts? In examining this theme, consider which types of collections, if any, should be included in the new ICOM definition of "museum," with respect to preservation and research.

3. Serving Nearby Heritage for All in Museums in the United States

What is the relationship between museums and their local communities? Who are the stakeholders in the presentation of local heritage as well as regional heritage? What does it mean for a museum to be “inclusive”? How do museums incorporate visitor experiences and categories into museum functions? In the 21st century, how have museums dealt with contestation, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and social status through programs and exhibits? Should museums be venues for open forums to address these complex issues in the community? What role should the broader public and other stakeholders play in the design and interpretation of exhibits, programming, events, and communication in 21st century museums? How should ICOM's new definition of "museum" reflect these issues?

ICOFOM and SNHU invite interested museologists to submit abstracts for papers and presentations on these topics for an online symposium to be held on September 14, 2018. These presentations will form the foundation for the discussion of the changing role of the museum in the United States. This will be the first symposium hosted completely online, with live streaming of all events. The final results of all of the international symposia will be published in digital form and will inform ICOM's new definition of the museum in the 21st century.

Potential presenters are invited to read through the ICOFOM Study Series and the online publications from previous symposia for background information, museological historiography, relevant concepts and theories, and inspiration for further discussion.


Abstracts are due by March 30, 2018 and should be a maximum of 300 words on any one of the three sub-themed panels listed above. Abstracts, papers, and presentations should be written in English. Only one abstract per person will be accepted. Additionally, please include a biography of 100 words. Accepted abstracts for presentation and publication will be notified by April 13, 2018. Please submit abstracts to y.chung1@snhu.edu.


Completed papers should be a maximum of 2,500 words, with proper footnotes, bibliography, and other formatting per the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. Completed papers must be submitted by August 17, 2018 to be included in the ICOFOM publication and the SNHU Academic Archive.


The symposium organizers will distribute the final schedule for presenters and technical requirements in advance of the symposium. Each presentation should be a maximum of 15 minutes to allow time for all presentations and for comments from the chair and audience afterward.

Current Definitions

The current ICOM definition of a museum was adopted in 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.[4]

The United States Code of Federal Regulations defines “museum” as follows:

Museum means a public or private nonprofit institution which is organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes and which, using a professional staff: (1) Owns or uses tangible objects, either animate or inanimate; (2) Cares for these objects; and (3) Exhibits them to the general public on a regular basis.[5]

Previous Symposia

  • Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris (June 9-11, 2017). Program.
  • Shu 'xiang Art Academy in Qing Hai Province, Beijing University, and Jinan, Qufu and Wudi in Shandong Province (October 3-5, 2017).
  • National University of Avellaneda, Buenos Aires, Argentina (November 9-10, 2017). Program.
  • Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and the research group on Experimental Museology and Image – MEI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil supported by Museu da Vida and cultural center Oi Futuro (November 16-17, 2017). Program.
  • University of St. Andrews, Scotland (St. Andrews) organized by the Museums and Galleries staff and hosted by Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean (EULAC) Museums and Communities (November 25, 2017). Program.

Organizing Committee

  • Lori Stein, M.A., Associate Dean of Programs for Liberal Arts and Humanities, Southern New Hampshire University (l.stein@snhu.edu)
  • James Fennessy, M.A., Associate Dean of Faculty for History, Southern New Hampshire University (j.fennessy@snhu.edu)
  • Robert Denning, Ph.D., History Faculty Lead, Southern New Hampshire University (r.denning@snhu.edu)
  • Yun Shun Susie Chung, Ph.D., Member, ICOFOM and ICOM-U.S., and Team Lead and Adjunct Faculty of History/Public History, Southern New Hampshire University (y.chung1@snhu.edu)


  1. “Committee for Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials,” ICOM, accessed January 26, 2018, https://goo.gl/11wPKb.
  2. ICOFOM Mission and Vision Statements: The ICOM International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM) is in charge of researching, studying and disseminating the theoretical basis of Museums and Museology. We understand museology as the study, theory, and philosophy of the museum field and the ethics of its practice and functions. The vision of ICOFOM is to foster development of quality knowledge in the museum field through the increase of members and engagement as the international center for museology.
  3. The United States has not adopted a national Living Human Treasure system. See UNESCO, “Intangible Cultural Heritage, Encouraging transmission of ICH: Living Human Treasures, accessed December 1, 2017, https://goo.gl/4vDFi4.
  4. “Museum Definition,” International Council of Museums, accessed November 15, 2017, http://icom.museum/the-vision/museum-definition/.
  5. “Definition of a Museum,” 2 C.F.R. 3187.3(a) (2016).


Image: Yun Shun Susie Chung; Layout: Robert Denning

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