Museum History

museum history

As the curators of irreplaceable works of art, and of bones and feathers and fossils that have been dug from sand and silt and ash, museums are vital links to worlds past. They reveal untold stories of heroic moments in history, long extinct creatures and unthinkable monsters, and they show us the way we are now, and what we might become.

Museums are a key source of information, but they can also be sources of bias and misinformation. As a result, museums must be vigilant about the accuracy of the information they present, particularly when it is related to histories and cultures that have not been studied or understood by mainstream society. This can be challenging, but it is essential to our mission.

Although the term “museum” does not appear in history until the 18th century, collections resembling those of today’s museums can be traced back thousands of years to Classical times. The word derives from the Greek word mouseion, which referred to sites devoted to the nine Muses, patron goddesses of the arts.

From ancient Greece to colonial America, individuals and institutions collected objects that might have religious or magical significance, were of economic value, or were simply curiosities. Many of these objects formed the foundations of what we now think of as a museum.

In the 1700s, a number of European collectors began to use the term museum to describe their collections. These were often aristocratic, and focused on collecting natural specimens or works of art. The collection of Ole Worm in Copenhagen and that of John Tradescant in London were among the first to be called a museum. In 1656, the catalog of Tradescant’s collection was titled the Musaeum Tradescantianum and later the Musaeum Ashmolean.

As the collections grew in size and complexity, the task of organizing them became more difficult. The need for organization was further heightened as Napoleon I toured Europe and confiscated the treasures of the great cities, forming the collections that came to be known as the “Museums of the Revolution.”

After Bunnell’s retirement in 1980, Allen Rosenbaum became Director. A scholar of Old Master painting, he led a campaign that resulted in the Museum’s major renovation and addition—the Mitchell Wolfson Jr., Class of 1963 Wing. In addition, he diversified the Museum’s holdings by adding art from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Islamic world, and the Pacific Islands for an Ethnology collection.

Rosenbaum’s leadership and vision were critical to the Museum’s evolution during this important time in its history, as he established a new direction for the institution, one that continues in our current Strategic Plan. This includes a commitment to diversifying the Museum’s collection and its exhibitions, as well as expanding our research and outreach activities, so that all of our audiences can understand and connect with the world’s rich cultural heritage. We hope you will join us on this journey!