Museum History

museum history

Museums preserve and interpret material culture as a shared heritage of the world’s peoples. Across the globe, these institutions offer a broad context for historical enquiry and a platform to challenge assumptions about the past. They reveal a fascinating story of the evolution of humankind, our relationship with the natural environment and the development of a global culture. Museums have an ancient history, ranging from private collections held in cabinets or boxes to the national museums that became a key component of European nationalism and colonial expansion. The modern museum is also an institution that has influenced local adaptation and self-definition in countries around the world.

The word museum has classical origins in Greek (mouseion), referring to sites of worship for the Muses, patron deities of the arts. In Latin, the word was used to describe a place for philosophical discussion and debate. It is only later that the word came to refer to an institution where art and other cultural treasures are collected and exhibited for public viewing.

As early as the 17th century, collectors began to organize their objects into collections. The age of exploration and the opening of the new world widened the scope of these collections, and they started to be referred to as cabinets or drawers of curiosities. By the 18th century, these collections had become more organized and systematic and were referred to collectively as museums.

The first large-scale museums were established to serve a variety of purposes: to provide recreation and scholarly venues; to promote civic pride or nationalistic endeavors; or to transmit overtly ideological concepts. They also revealed a remarkable diversity in form, content and even function, despite their common goal of preserving and interpreting some aspect of a society’s cultural consciousness.

Museums developed from a desire to collect and preserve cultural objects, a passion that continues to drive individuals and societies today. But the museum also emerged as part of a complex system of ideas and values that included education, democracy and a quest for knowledge. It is a combination of these factors that created the modern museum as we know it.

When most people think of museums, they envision a quiet, solemn place where visitors stand in silent contemplation among neat rows of paintings. However, museum experiences range from the hands-on science centers of children’s museums to the contextualized ethnographic collections in history museums. Each of these museum types has its own history that reflects the changing nature and meaning of museums as an institution for the preservation and interpretation of human culture. The future of museums lies in their continued ability to serve these many overlapping purposes and to engage an increasingly diverse audience.