Always Different, Always the Same? Museums in a Global Context

Above: Illustration by Olivia Wilson, 2021

Susan Shih Chang

Most people have to been to at least one museum in their lives, and most of the time the experience goes like this: You walk into an displaying room with art pieces and artifacts, touching of which is not allowed, and you engage with these objects by participating in an educational tour, at the end of the exhibition hall you see a list of the names of people and institutions of the preservation, research and curation team, and you leave the museum feeling educated.

Almost all of the 55,000 museums across 202 countries will give you very similar experiences. Despite societies across the globe demonstrate great difference in the way they treat culture, memory and history, globally considered, museum practice is at the same time both ostensibly different – with respect to forms and cultural frames – and structurally similar. Why is this so? Why are museums strucutres around the world consistant and unvarying?

To answer this question, we need to first define what museums are, their purpose and function. Two influential definitions of the museum are from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the International Council on Museums (ICOM) respectively. AAM’s definition of the museum is:

“The AAM assertion that ‘the common denominator is making a ‘unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.’ ” [1]

While the ICOM defines museums as:

“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.”[2]

The definitions above assert “the museum” as an institution of learning, with public function. It claims that museums have the role of providing resources to the public to cultivate knowledge of science, cultures, and could serve as a process to generate close links between self and other, leading to the recognition of common humanity. In November 2015 UNESCO adopted ICOM’s Definition in its “Recommendation on the Protection and Promotion of Museums and Collections”, and subsequently all 195 of its member states did the same, “conferring an even more significant role to ICOM’s Definition” (Brown and Mairesse, 2018). This means that to gain international recognition, institutions will seek to fit into the universal definitions, which accordingly serves as references and guidelines for museum practitioners and researchers in global societies, and this includes coming up with similar guidelines, practices and standards of management.

Current museum scholars may observe that many decolonising work has been done to diversify museums’ practices. One example is the critique of the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums in 2002, published by in an edited volume on the return of cultural objects by UNESCO. The 2002 Declaration is signed by 18 major and “western” museums to continue to possess objects acquired long ago. Several directors and scholars criticized the declaration and its supporters. The critique however is underpinned by hegemonic assumptions regarding museum. Geoffrey Lewis, Chair of the International Council of Museums Ethics Committee criticized that the Declaration was for those museums to establish claims for repatriation of objects and that “The presumption that a museum with universally defined objectives may be considered exempt from such demands is specious. The Declaration is a statement of self-interest…they do not, as they imply, speak for the ‘international museum community.’”[3].   

This issue is highlighted again with the controversies surrounding a “new” universal definition of museums. The heated argument took place during the Extraordinary General Assembly in September, 2019 leading to a postponement of the vote, which shows however central role that ICOM definition play in outlining what museums could and should do and look like in the future.

Two questions can be drawn from this finding: First, what does this (intention towards) homogeneity mean? Second, where do these assumptions on museum roles come from? Regarding the first question, I found DiMaggio & Powell’s (1983) theoretical apparatus of institutional isomorphism  useful in explaining the reasons why museum structures are becoming more and more identical. They argued that institutions today have developed to become generally more similar, without essentially taking the same processes of formation and without necessarily becoming more efficient. In the beginning, we see that in the field of certain organizations, there exist diverse activities and various sets of organizational structures. However, the increase in information load that an organization must contend and an increase of interaction among organizations, ultimate led to a common structure. Once a field of organization with common structures is established, it is maintained through the homogenization of new entrants.

This is supported by research looking into the history of museums in East Asia. It is discovered that in the second half of the nineteenth century, both Japan and China were studying (the already established) Western museum systems and were eager to design their own museums as a corridor to spread knowledge and educate the public. It is therefore suggested that the notion of museums in China and Japan is a product of “appropriation of Western formats, deeply influenced by traditional attitudes to cultural preservation and display” (Chang, 2012). Non-western societies’ understanding of “museums” is therefore deeply rooted in a Euro-centric history. However, perhaps it is still too early to conclude that museums in these societies have no power in contributing into the field. 

The second question can also be answered through DiMaggio’s (1991) discussion on the form and function of art museums in which he describes the developments of the emergence of museum education, rooted in the assumption of the cultivating role that museums have toward the public. Crucial factors that led to the emergence of museum education includes “the reform movement’s usage of ‘rational myths’ of justice, progress, efficiency, and democracy; the professionalization of museum personnel; the development of art history as a distinct discipline within the university system; and the subsidization of museums under the educational mandates of the Carnegie Corporation ((DiMaggio 1991:275; cite from Pourbohoul, 2014: 17). This illustrates that the current established understanding of museums’ educational roles is developed or “created” within a very specific American context. The fact that museums worldwide see education as their purpose is the problematic consequence of this institutional homogenisation/convergence.

 DiMaggio’s arguments, as mentioned above, show the effects of institutional processes on museums, and he argues that the legitimacy established by museums are carried out by incorporating existing structures and procedures, on a national scale.  In this regard, Buchholz’s (2016) expansion of Bourdieu’s field from a national to a global scale provides us the tool to analyse the dynamics of museum practice on a global level . Bourdieu’s original theory tied fields of cultural production to fields of power within a nation-state, where the functional autonomy between the two horizontal field types interacts. Building on this, Buchholz used the relative autonomy between the Art fields on the nation-state level (French, Japanese, US Art Field) and the Global art field as an example to pushes us to look at vertical autonomy between field “Levels”. By conceptualizing global fields in relation to national or regional fields, we are be able to question the knowledge production of museum related theories originate from Euro-American studies and look at multiple-directionality of the relationship among field levels and argue that organizations such as ICOM or AAM establish legitimacy by including established structures (Euro-American concepts of museums) and maintain both official and ritualistic conformity with other institutions on a global level.

Susan Shih Chang is a PhD Candidate in Culture Studies at the National University of Singapore with a designated emphasis on theories from Asia and Inter-Asia connections. She is working on museums and national identity in Taiwan. Her works has appeared in a range of publications including International Journal of Taiwan Studies, Curator, New Bloom, and No Man is an Island.


Chang, W.C. 2012. A Cross-cultural Perspective on Musealization: The Museum’s Reception by China and Japan in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century. Museum and Society, 10(1): 15–27. 

Brown, K. & Mairesse, F. 2018. The definition of the museum through its social role. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(4): 525-539.

Buchholz, Larrisa. 2016. What is a Global Field? Theorizing fields beyond the nation-state. The Sociological Review Monograph, 64(2): 31-60.

DiMaggio, P.J., & Powell, W.W. 1983. The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review, 48(2): 147–160.

DiMaggio, P.J. 1991. Constructing an Organizational Field as a Professional Project: US Art Museums, 1920-1940. In The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Ed. Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio. Pp. 267-292. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Pourbohloul, Elika.2014. Effects of Institutional Processes on Museum Practices. [Unpublished Master thesis]. University of California, Los Angeles.


[1] AAM Code of Ethics for Museums. Retrieved from:

[2] ICOM-Museum Definition 2007. Retrieved from:

[3] Lewis, Geoffrey. “The Universal Museum: a Special Case?” ICOM NEWS, no. 1 (2004): 3.

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