Children’s Museums & Cultural Democracy



Reflections on the current discourse about ICOM’s museum definition

In the past children’s museums already took on the roles of pioneers, by starting the audience-orientation movement of the museum sector. The wide range of low-threshold interactive, hands-on exhibitions and educational programmes we today consider state-of-the-art in museums all root in practices developed in children’s museums, who evolved around their audience.[1]

Today, we are once again confronted with the need to take this audience-orientation movement even further and replacing outdated educational and institutional paradigms and finding adequate ways to address new societal demands. This urgency for change becomes evident in many ways and is mirrored in current discourses of the cultural scene.

In the museum sector a major debate, followed by heated arguments, broke loose, when the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced a major revision of the current museum definition. It is important to emphasis, that the ICOM museum definition and code of ethics for museums is internationally recognized as a binding framework for national museum legislations. Hence, the economic sustainability, social relevance and national legitimation of professional museum work is rooted and intertwined in this definition.

One of the driving forces of the new definition stated that the current version[2] ‘does not speak the language of the 21st century’ by ignoring demands of ‘cultural democracy’.[3]

Proposing the following definition instead:

‘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.’ [4]


Even though the vote for a new proposal was postponed due to the heavy backlash by some national ICOM branches, criticising the in-transparent way[5] the proposal was developed and its vague terminology, the process illustrates how immediate the need for (cultural) institutions has become to offer new approaches in order to stay connected and relevant to today’s 21st century society.

When taking a closer look at this new definition, regardless its haziness and possible shortcomings[6] and by fully acknowledging its controversy and possible inaccuracies, it becomes evident that audience-orientation and engagement, and critical discourse could be defined as the key-factors for museums to be able to stay true to the requirements of contemporary society.

If we now take the main characteristics of children’s museums [7], it becomes evident that they already live-up to these core-values attributed to museum of the future


  1. The ideal of a 21st century museum concept rooted in cultural – democracy  already exists in the form of children’s museums and therefore has been well tested.
  2. The new museum definition theoretically confirms the operational model of children’s museums as blueprint for future-proof museum work
  3. Taking into account the reflective and innovative role the cultural sector as a whole takes on for society, and the general outcry for a remodeling of contemporary education, the current shift in the museums world also has the potential to serve as a prototype and best practice inspiration for formal education.
  4. Given the audience-centered approach and the usually smaller organization sizes, children’s museums have the potential to quickly react and address current topics, serving as real-time discourse centres and social laboratories, provided they do not shy away from tackling challenging content.


[1] Zwaka/Haas ‘Can children`s museums survive the 21st Century’ at 12th Hands On! Conference, Frankfurt 2019
[2] “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.”
[3] Jette Sandahl who leads ICOM’s commission
[4] Taken from:
[5] a closed-off committee internally chosen by ICOM created the definition without adequate consulting and feed-back modules to include a broader museum community
[6] One of the major points of criticism are the lack of the explicit reference to the educational function and its potential lack of confining museums from other cultural spaces such as theaters, etc.


-Sarai Lenzberger, March 2021



The over-all objective of this project, which is generously supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, is to showcase and to tackle the potential of the unique quality and character of children-oriented museums for benefiting society as future-oriented, 21st Century learning spots.

Actions of the project:
  • Unite stake holders of the field to create a global mission & quality standards
  • Create a global brand and marketing tools for the sector
  • Map the sector and provide capacity building tools and content for professional development

Learn more