Museum History

museum history

A museum is an institution dedicated to the collection and display of objects that document or illustrate human history throughout the world for the purposes of research, education, and public enjoyment. Scholars place the earliest museums—in the sense of modern institutions—in 17th or 18th-century Europe, but there is evidence for earlier collections and sites of display, including public squares or fora in ancient Rome (where statuary and war booty were displayed), medieval church treasuries for art and valuable items, and traditional Japanese shrines.

Museums are found at the local, regional, and national levels, and are quite diverse in size, content, and structure. Some are devoted to specific historical periods or themes, others focus on art and archaeology, and still others encompass a broad range of disciplines. In addition, museums may be dedicated to a particular social or cultural group, or they may strive to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavours. The word “museum” reflects its classical roots, and is most associated with the great museum of Alexandria founded by Ptolemy I Soter early in the 3rd century bce, which resembled a university rather than a collection of artifacts.

In the course of their development, many museums have adapted and responded to changing needs and interests, reflecting the shifting contexts in which they operate. While the stereotypical museum historian is often thought of as a dust-covered individual standing in a silent room with neat rows of paintings, the reality is that museum workers are at the forefront of interpreting our past and present to make it meaningful for contemporary society.

The creation of a museum is an extremely complex process, and it can be difficult to determine where the line between museums that are public and those that are private begins and ends. The simplest distinction is that a public museum will be open to the general public and will have some means of collecting money for admission. Private museums are privately run and are usually funded by individuals or groups of people.

The acquisition of objects for the collections of a museum is a continuous activity. Some museums may sponsor expeditions to obtain artifacts and documentation, while others receive donations, bequests, purchases, or loans. Larger museums have a fulltime staff whose job is to acquire materials. Museums also participate in joint, or traveling, exhibits on subjects about which they do not have sufficient expertise.

The purpose of the museum varies with each individual institution, but most share the common goal of making their collections accessible to the public for the purposes of research and education. Some museums may aim to provide a more complete or thorough presentation of the subject than others, but all museum curators have a responsibility to ensure that their work is accurate and ethical. The successful interpretation of a historic topic relies on the skills of the museum historian, who must be able to remove an object from its original time and space and bring it to life for the visitor.