An ecomuseum is a museum focused on the identity of a place, largely based on local participation and aiming to enhance the welfare and development of local communities. Ecomuseums originated in France, the concept being developed by Georges Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine, who coined the term ‘ecomusée’ in 1971. The term "éco" is a shortened form for "écologie", but it refers especially to a new idea of holistic interpretation of cultural heritage, in opposition to the focus on specific items and objects, performed by traditional museums.
Introduced by the French museologist Hugues de Varine in 1971, the word ecomuseum has often been misused and the definition of an ecomuseum is still a controversial matter for contemporary museology. Many museologists sought to define the distinctive features of ecomuseums, listing their characteristics.
Following a complexity approach, in recent definitions, ecomuseums are more properly defined by what they do rather than by what they are.
The ecomuseum phenomenon has grown dramatically over the years, with no one ecomuseum model but rather an entire philosophy that has been adapted and molded for use in a variety of situations. As many more ecomuseums are established across the world the idea has been growing and the changes in the approach towards the philosophy are reflected in the reactions of the communities involved. In recent time particular significance is the rise in ecomuseology in India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, with significant increase in Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey.
Ecomuseums are an important medium through which a community can take control of its heritage and enable new approaches to make meaning out of conserving its local distinctiveness.
An Ecomuseum is a dynamic way in which communities preserve, interpret, and manage their heritage for a sustainable development. An Ecomuseum is based on a community agreement.
— Declaration of Intent of the Long Net Workshop, Trento (Italy), May 2004
Dynamic way means to go beyond the formal aspect of an ecomuseum, beyond a simple set course, designed on paper; it is about designing real actions, able to change our society and improve our landscape. Community means a group with:
Community involvement does not mean that local administrations, a unique historical heritage of European democracy, are irrelevant. On the contrary their role, to be effective, must involve people, going beyond the narrow circle of “authorized personnel”.
Preservation, interpretation and management means that reading and communicating heritage values, providing new interpretations of it and raising its profile, are part of the day-to-day activity for ecomuseums. Heritage is very close to Place as a notion, including history of inhabitants and things, what is visible and what it is not, tangibles and intangibles, memories and future.
Sustainable development is a central issue for ecomuseums and it implies also to increase the value of a place instead of diminishing it. Evidence from best practices identifies in this process two key elements: place-based development, as previously described, and the improvement of local networks, where ecomuseums have to play a key role as catalysts of social capital development.
Agreement means a mutual consent, implying reciprocal commitments between local players. The Polish national meeting, once more, put forward the idea of “voluntary meeting of people”.
In 2016 inside the 24th ICOM General Conference "Museums and cultural landscape" of Milan, the first Forum of ecomuseums and community museums took place. The goals of the forum were to share experiences, questions and difficulties that ecomuseums face; to share their future projects; to envisage any prospect of exchange or collaboration with the visitors. During the Forum "it was proposed to establish an International Platform for exchanges and experience sharing", and "decided to create a permanent international Working Group to keep watch and make proposals on the theme territory-heritage-landscape." In the early 2017 on the basis of ideas, issues and debates raised by participants during the Forum a common vision was drawn and a provisional “Milan Cooperation Charter” was adopted.
In the early 2017 the world platform for exchange and experience sharing between ecomuseums and community museums was published. The platform called DROPS aims at “connecting all national Ecomuseums and Community Museums and their networks, existing or to be established, and all other heritage and landscape NGOs, in a virtual and interactive space” and at the “production of a multilingual documentary and a bibliographic pool of resources on ecomuseology and its best practices” .