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Museum Lingo: Learn Museum Words

The inside scoop on museum words, phrases, and definitions. Your visitor experience will improve if you know these words.

A jumble of Scrabble tiles representing confusing museum words
Learning museum lingo will help you to enjoy your museum visit

Museums, like all business and organizations, have inside slang: words and phrases that have a particular meaning within the field. If you're not regularly connected with museums, you may not know how these words and phrases apply to museums. Not knowing the lingo might spark curiosity, or it might just annoy you.

“The last time I went to a museum, I felt dumb. I didn't understand all of what they talked about. Was it me or them?”

Museums often forget that many of their visitors are new to museums or are infrequent visitors. This can be extremely annoying! Understanding the "inside lingo" can change the whole tone of the visit. Yes, museums might do better about this, however they don't always.

Museum Words

  • Non-profit: Most museums are non-profit meaning they have a mission to serve the public and any profit they make is folded back into the operation of the organization.

  • Docent: In many museums, docents or guides take you on tours of the museum. Sometimes they are volunteers and sometimes they are paid staff.

  • Label: Labels or captions describe individual objects in museums. They usually include the title, date, name of the artist, country of origin, and materials used. In addition, a good label tells a short story about the object and answers the visitors' most common question about the object.

  • Gallery: In a museum, gallery refers to a room or part of a room that usually has a particular theme or grouping of objects.

  • Curator: The word curator means to care for. Curators are in charge of collecting and caring for artifacts in museums. A small museum might have one curator in charge of all of the artifacts. In larger museums, multiple curators are each in charge of a particular collection such as American furniture, or 20th century paintings, or Asian pottery, or cultural anthropology.

  • Donor: A donor is someone who gifts a museum with art or artifacts that fit with the mission of the museum. Donors might gift the museum by purchasing a single object, or they might donate a whole collection of art that they have collected during their life.

  • Collection: The word collection can refer to all of the objects in a museum such as the Art Institute of Chicago's collection of art. Often, collection refers to a group of related objects such as a collection of Roman coins or a collection of 18th century French porcelain or a collection of Chinese painted scrolls.

Woman looking at painting in a museum
Examining art in a museum

More museum words

  • Circa: Many of the object labels will show a date with either "circa" or "c." or "ca" before the date. These mean "about" or "around." When a museum isn't sure of the exact date, they will make an educated guess and precede the date with circa.

  • Interpretation: Explaining, educating, and presenting information and stories about a museum and its objects is referred to as interpretation. Interpretation can be done through labels, guided tours, or audio tours.

  • Visitor experience: Museums talk about their visitors' experience as a way to evaluate how well visitors enjoy their visit. The visitor experience includes everything from parking, signage, staff attitude, restrooms, available seating, and more, as well as the overall perception of the art and artifacts.

  • Archives: A museum's archives is the paper records that supplement the artwork. It might be historical photographs of the objects, journals kept by the original owner of the artwork, or documentation about the object's purchase. At a historic house museum, archival materials might include original architectural drawings, maps, receipts, and more.

  • Repatriation: Museums are beginning (some would say too slowly) to return art and artifacts to their countries of origin. Large museums across the globe often own art that was either stolen or inappropriately removed from a country, often a poor country under colonial rule. The act of returning these objects is called repatriation.

  • Conservation: Antique quilts, historic furniture, and historic paintings get worn and dirty. Conservation is a careful way to clean and strengthen art in ways that maintain the original integrity of the object. Some museums have conservators on staff. Other museums hire conservators to work on case-by-case projects.

Are there any words that should be added to this list?


Robert Long
Robert Long
Aug 28, 2023

On the other hand, maybe it would be educational (a common museum mission) for someone unfamiliar with a word to look it up on their phone to find its meaning. Bingo done - that person has learned something. Not always a good idea to lower everything to its lowest common denominator.


Marie Ayres
Marie Ayres
Jul 22, 2023

Docent. I hadn't heard that word before 🙂

Susan Marie Ward
Susan Marie Ward
Aug 23, 2023
Replying to

Some museums use it, many don't.


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