A museum might be thought of as a place of solemn, contemplative silence where people stand in rows studying neatly arranged paintings. On the other hand, a museum might also be seen as an exploratory, hands-on science center or a space where cultural history is told through artifacts and stories. These different types of museums are not as far apart as they seem. Each has a unique role to play in shaping the society and culture that it serves. But these museums are all part of a larger story, one that has many sides and is often overlooked.
Until the mid-18th century, most museums were private collections owned by individuals or institutions of art and rare or curious natural objects or artifacts. These collections were often displayed in so-called wonder rooms or cabinets of curiosity. Usually only the wealthy or educated could view these collections and even then only with a reservation.
With the rise of Enlightenment ideas and the reshaping of European society, many of these early museums began to become public institutions. This change was facilitated by several factors including the idea that knowledge was a social good, and that the public should have access to this knowledge. It also coincided with the development of new technologies for collecting, preserving and displaying natural and cultural objects.
The word “museum” derives from the Greek term for the places dedicated to the nine Muses, patron goddesses of the arts and sciences. This was the origin of the modern notion of a museum as a place for the cultivation of the arts and knowledge. With the advent of explorers and the opening up of the new world, these collections broadened and grew more systematic. These collections were often stored in cabinets or other storage containers and came to be known as museums.
By the 19th century, there were large numbers of museums in Europe. Some were national and state museums that aimed at ‘civilizing’ their citizens by making them aware of the beauty and wisdom of the various cultures of the world. This ideal often resulted in chronological arrangements of art that were subdivided by nation, school or artist and based on the comparison of visual forms.
Some of these museums were founded by artists and scholars who believed that the world’s artistic creation was a common heritage that should be shared by all. Others were founded by people who hoped to use museums to promote their own cultural and political goals. Still others simply wanted to collect, preserve and display artifacts for their own enjoyment. In the early 21st century, museum professionals have begun to realize that these older models of museums are not necessarily the best way to serve society. Museums are now beginning to shift their mission to include the needs of their communities and to present history in a more inclusive and meaningful way. This movement is likely to continue in the future as museums work to move away from their elitist past and toward being truly inclusive.