Museums are an important part of our culture and have a long history. During the 19th century, public museums became a way to educate people about art and the world around them. Throughout the 20th century, museums have become more and more popular in many countries.
The concept of a museum may have begun with the Enlightenment but it was not until John Tradescant and Elias Ashmole set up their collections in Oxford in 1675 that the museum became a permanent institution at the university. This was the first time that a scientific institution was built to house a collection of natural specimens and to support research.
As the years went by, many changes occurred in the way that these institutions operated. In addition to a growing number of academic departments, the museum also included teaching and library functions as well as exhibits of the works that were collected.
During the twentieth century, new leaders came to lead the Museum. For instance, Frank Mather, who was a distinguished collector, donated works to the Museum he guided in order to expand its holdings of medieval and Renaissance art. He also cultivated major holdings of prints and drawings, a significant portion of which had been acquired through the bequests of philanthropists.
Another notable director was Louis Bunnell, who served from 1966 to 1975 and helped build up the Museum’s holdings in the field of ancient Greek and Roman art. He also developed major exhibitions of the art of the Americas, particularly Mexico and Central America. He forged links to the Museum’s core curriculum and to the School of Art, and established an extensive outreach program.
In the late 1970s, Allen Rosenbaum became director of the Museum, refocusing the acquisitions program on old master paintings. He expanded the Museum’s holdings in this area, including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck, among others. He also initiated a series of exhibitions and programs in connection with the Maya civilization and the University’s 250th anniversary celebration.
He also undertook a significant expansion to the building, which opened in 1989 as the Mitchell Wolfson Jr., Class of 1963, Wing. It added a sculpture mall, classrooms and studio space, and a new vault for the Museum’s collection.
These major changes, which were primarily funded by a capital campaign, enabled the Museum to develop new connections to the university and to deepen its relationship with its core curriculum. He also established endowed curatorships and other positions and increased the Museum’s visibility within the community.
In this period of social and communal awakening, it is critical that the Museum play a role in highlighting these stories. It can do so through its collection of artifacts from diverse cultures and communities and its work in supporting cultural diplomacy. It can also do so through its work in promoting social and community inclusion and integration.