Museum History

Museums are public institutions created to care for, preserve, and interpret historical objects. Museums may focus on art or history, natural history or the humanities. Some museums commemorate particular events, such as the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Imperial War Museum in London; others may be devoted to a specific culture, as with the British Museum in London or the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Some museums are housed in historic buildings, as with the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; others have been created in new premises, as with the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Museums were not always conceived as public institutions, nor was it always easy to define what an object was. Often, museums began as private collections of interesting objects gathered by wealthy people. Museums grew more sophisticated in the 17th and 18th centuries, as their collections and methods of display became increasingly focused on the public good.

The first modern museums were art galleries that opened to the public, such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. These museums showed how art could move from the private domain of the aristocracy and wealthy into the broader cultural realm, as a means of imparting taste and refinement to the masses. The earliest museums were also concerned with the preservation of their precious collections, as is reflected in museum labels like “Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum in Ur, c. 530 BC” and “Louvre, France, established in 1793.”

Today, the definition of museum is changing. Many museums are responding to escalating global tensions by emphasizing the value of knowledge and understanding over hatred and ignorance. They are tackling climate change with exhibitions that highlight the impact of humans on the planet, and taking a fresh look at how their collections were acquired in the past, for example through a renewed commitment to stewardship of human remains and an apology for the eugenics movement.

Museums are also rethinking what it means to be a museum in the age of digital technology, with interactive displays and immersive experiences. But a museum’s success depends on the quality of its exhibits, and that will remain true no matter how many touch screens or holograms it has. A thoughtfully designed exhibition with a clear focus and compelling story will hold visitors’ attention for longer than any technological trick. Ultimately, the power of museums to unite the public around shared interests will always come down to the strength of their research and storytelling. That’s something no hologram can replicate.