Museum History

Throughout history museums have been many things. They have been schools, civic centers, economic engines, refuges, town squares, and democratic forums. Museums have also served as places to celebrate heroes, long-extinct creatures, and beautiful art. They have also been places to explore a world that has never been fully documented, from distant places in space and time to regions of our own backyards that are buried under water or development.

Museums change through history, but their core functions remain the same. As a result, museums have had to adjust as society changes. They have had to adapt to technological advances in the fields of art and science; to new ideas about human rights, ethics, and sex; to the evolution of new ways of thinking about what it means to be modern and global. They have had to deal with the varying demands of their audiences, from scholars to local communities; to the changing nature of the work they do and the resources that they need to achieve that work.

Some of the first museums began as private collections that were only accessible to a limited circle of people. These were often referred to as “wonder rooms” or “cabinets of curiosities.” By the 18th century, private individuals were spending lavish amounts on art and other objects to display and establish their social standing. This fueled the expansion of public museums and other institutions dedicated to collecting and preserving cultural and natural artifacts.

In the early days, Museum staff had to find ways to work within a limited budget and a tight schedule to meet the needs of their audiences. As the collections grew, so did the institution’s responsibilities and mission. The Museum had to find a balance between teaching, research, and outreach that would allow it to serve its audience in the most effective manner.

Frank Jewett Mather Jr., who joined the Museum in 1910 to teach Renaissance art and became director of the Museum in 1922, took a leading role in this effort. He reorganized the Museum and expanded its educational programs. He built new exhibition and storage spaces, including McCormick Hall; added new collections to the Museum, such as a major purchase of Renaissance paintings; and increased the Museum’s commitment to art conservation—he personally cleaned paintings for many years.

Today, Museum departments are working harder than ever to meet the challenges of the evolving needs of their audiences. Museums are now called upon to be social-change agents; to speak out against oppressive forces of all kinds; to promote the rights of women and minorities; to educate about the role of democracy in a diverse world; and to encourage the public to care about and protect the natural environment. They are also being called on to provide access to irreplaceable treasures of art and science. These tasks are more important than ever, but they can only be achieved with the support of people like you. The future of museums depends on our continued involvement.