Museum History

Museums have a long history, arising out of what may be an innate human desire to collect and interpret objects. Museums can be traced back to the large collections of art, anthropology and natural history built up by individuals and groups before modern times, although their formalized existence dates to the mid-19th century when museums began to emerge as non-profit, non-governmental institutions.

Museum historians are concerned with the study of art and culture, focusing on museums as sites for the display and interpretation of their collections. These studies are also concerned with the role of museums within societies and cultures, as sites for the creation and maintenance of cultural memory. Museums are, in short, a complex cultural construct, and the study of museums requires an understanding of their entangled histories.

The word museum, derived from the Greek word mouseion (house of the Muses), originally denoted a building dedicated to the Muses and containing their works. The term came to be applied to a collection of objects in the 17th century, as visitors to collections such as Ole Worm’s in Copenhagen and John Tradescant’s array in Lambeth, London called it a “museum.” In 1675 Tradescant sold his collection to Elias Ashmole who donated it to the University of Oxford where a new museum building was built for the purpose and became known as the Ashmolean Museum.

From the early 19th century onwards, museums began to expand rapidly as a result of the growth in wealth of private citizens who sought to amass large collections of art and other objects. In addition to acquiring objects for the sake of preserving them, they saw their collections as ways to assert their social status and gain prestige. Among the most famous museums of this period were the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

At the same time, museums remained closely connected to scholarly research and learning, and in many European countries a great collection was a key tool in the political game played by Europe’s monarchs to assert their cultural supremacy. For example, in the French Revolution the Louvre palace was transformed from a personal collection belonging to King Louis XIV into a public museum.

After the Second World War, many museums attempted to redefine their purposes, reorienting them toward a more civic engagement with history. These attempts were, however, hampered by the fact that most museums kept functioning within clear national and imperial narratives.

Today, museums continue to operate as unique sites where historical inquiry takes place. As they do so, they need to be aware of their own history and the way that this history shapes their own present. It is in the context of this awareness that museums are best able to serve their audiences by connecting past experiences to current life. For this reason, museums should not shy away from addressing the political dimension of their history. Museums can offer important historical insight, but they must be willing to take on the complexity of that endeavor.