The evolution of museums has greatly influenced the way we think about the past. While museum collections used to be the sole purview of historians, new technology has made collections available online and made these collections even more accessible to the public. Historians are now also involved in the design and development of temporary exhibitions and new museum galleries. Considering all of these changes, museum history is a burgeoning specialty. To learn more about the history of museums, read on!
In the early modern period, the museum concept began as a place to collect material evidence that documents nature and human history. The word “museum” comes from Ancient Greek “mouseion,” which meant “seat of the Muses,” which was a philosophical institution. The word “museum” was first used in the 15th century in France for a collection at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, which was later joined by the national portrait gallery. Today, paintings of people are a common element of many types of museums, including art, science, and history.
The first museums were private collections that were only accessible to a select circle of people. They displayed unusual objects and acted as wonder rooms. The oldest museum, located in the state of Ur in China, was a private collection of Mesopotamian artifacts. Its collection was the oldest known museum. The British Museum was founded in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759, based on the collections of Sir Isaac Sloan.
Museums often have specialized departments dedicated to one specific area of history. For example, the British Museum aims to be the world’s premier museum of material culture and art. To celebrate its 250th anniversary, the museum has created an Enlightenment exhibition in the museum’s King’s Library. It includes collections from the 18th century as well as interprets key issues surrounding the history of early museums. The exhibitions and interpretations of these collections are a good starting point for a history lesson.
As with any collection, museums acquire objects and artifacts. They may also organize expeditions to gather more items. Bequests and donations may also provide a valuable source of items. Larger museums may also employ acquisitions staff to handle this task. Most museums have a collection policy. A joint exhibit between two museums is another way to engage the public. Often these exhibits last only a short period of time and are dependent on a separate admission fee.
In 1829, John Varden founded the National Institute of Art. He collected European art and displayed it in a room near the U.S. Capitol. Later, the museum moved to the Patent Office Building, which still stands today. John Varden served as curator of the museum. During its first century, paintings, sculptures, and even the Declaration of Independence shared a space in the exhibition hall. It also had a collection of works by Benjamin Franklin, including his printing press.
The museum’s first exhibition was promoted as a “curios loan” and featured more than 400 objects. These included two-dimensional art, sculpture, religious relics, historic books, and war paraphernalia. One of the most notable exhibitions was the collection of the Denbys, the United States’ first ambassador to China. The Denbys donated tapestries, wood carvings, porcelain, and other pieces of Chinese art.