Museum History

Museums are institutions that collect, preserve, and interpret the material evidence of human activity and the natural world. They often play a crucial role in society by providing a vehicle for the dissemination of culture, and their history is a complex one. Museums have evolved in response to a host of cultural, social, and political forces that have made them what they are today.

The word museum derives from the Greek muzeion, a site dedicated to the nine Muses (patron deities of the arts). However, it did not become a term for public display until the 17th century when museums began as collections built up by individuals or groups that were accessible to the general public. Prior to this, art was often exhibited in public places like the city squares or fora of ancient Rome (where statuary and war booty were displayed) or in medieval church treasuries or traditional Japanese shrines where small paintings (ema, traditionally of horses) were hung to attract good fortune.

As the museum developed as a public institution, it gained a sense of permanence that distinguishes it from earlier art galleries. This stability was crucial to preserving objects for future generations, which in turn helped museums acquire their reputation as repositories of national heritage. During this time, museums began to expand the scope of their collections by incorporating artifacts from the newly discovered and conquered world. As a result, the modern museum emerged as an institution that not only collected and preserved but also explained and shared.

While museums have had a long and varied history, their ability to serve as a vehicle for culture has only been fully realized in the last 200 years. The emergence of the modern museum coincided with the rise of nationalism and imperialism, and each country that aspired to be respected sought to establish its own national museums. These institutions became vital tools in transforming the masses into a cultured and cultivated populace.

In recent times, museum critics have questioned whether the democratizing promise of the museum has been fulfilled. In the case of American museums, the issue has been exacerbated by the 2016 election and fervent racism that has spilled over into violence, as exemplified by the 2017 discovery of a noose at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. This incident has highlighted the need for museums to take a stand on social and political issues and to be vigilant about protecting their visitors from hate speech and acts of violence. Moreover, the need for museums to provide a space for all voices has never been more pressing. Museums must continue to push the boundaries of what it means to be a museum by exploring new ways of making exhibitions and engaging with the public in order to be relevant for our increasingly diverse society. The challenge is now even greater, as we grapple with the impact of digital technology and the changing nature of museum audiences.