It is notoriously difficult to define the term ‘museum’, and we don’t intend to lay down too many hard-and-fast criteria. Here we set out our priorities and our general approach to other potential data contributors.
One priority are the 1,700 Accredited museums in the UK. These are institutions that have met the requirements of a well-established national scheme administered by Arts Council England, Museums Galleries Scotland, the Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Museums Council.
MDS hopes to hold object records from half these museums by 2028 and almost all by 2033.
Public art collections
One of the driving forces behind MDS is Art UK, the online home for the nation’s public art. More than 3,000 public art collections are Art UK partners, many of which are not museums but institutions, such as local authorities and universities, that hold artworks on behalf of the public.
Another priority for MDS is therefore public art collections from existing and potential Art UK partners.
Other museum-like collections
Many other collections are, for various reasons, not in Accredited museums but can nonetheless be considered ‘museum-like’. In deciding what to count as a ‘museum’, the Mapping Museums project
“… chose not to use either the ICOM or the Museums Association definitions as this would have limited our research to museums that complied with their terms… However, we did generally expect museums to have a permanent collection, to have artefacts on display, to be regularly open to the public, and to occupy a defined space…
We excluded zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens, libraries, archives, and monuments unless they contained a stand-alone museum; temporary museums; online museums͖ and mobile museums. Historic buildings such as lighthouses, windmills, watermills and archaeological sites were included if they contained interpretative exhibitions or had been fitted out with period decor.”
These feel like sensible guidelines for us to follow too, with the additional expectation that collections included in MDS will be held for public benefit rather than in private hands.
Above all, when considering edge cases outside our two main priorities, we will look at how the collection in question has been documented. Museum practice has long been distinct from that of libraries and archives, following quite different cataloguing standards.
MDS looks forward to seamless searching across all these and other cultural heritage collections one day soon. In the meantime, we will focus on bringing museum-like data to that party, and normally refer collections catalogued to other standards to repositories such as Library Hub Discover, Archives Hub and The National Archives’ Discovery platform.