Museums gather, preserve and present artifacts. Their missions are to foster the enjoyment of cultural heritage, promote education, and enhance the quality of life in their communities. Museums are diverse in purpose and function, ranging from recreational facilities to scholarly venues to places for civic pride or nationalistic endeavor. Yet they all share the same essential role in society: transmitting a material aspect of a culture’s shared consciousness.
Unlike many other human enterprises, museums are not based on profit but rather on a fundamentally ethical principle: The preservation of cultural heritage for the benefit and inspiration of future generations. Their founders recognized that humankind is inherently a collector of knowledge, and they envisioned museums as repositories for the accumulation of accumulated knowledge in a variety of forms.
The modern museum is closely tied to several overlapping institutions that arose simultaneously in 18th and 19th-century Europe: nationalism fused with colonial expansion; democracy; and the Enlightenment. As such, museum histories focus primarily on the development of museums in Europe and North America. But there are important questions to explore about the ways that museum models and collecting practices have influenced local adaptation and self-definition in places outside of Europe and North America.
While scholars place the earliest “museums” in 17th-century Europe, there are examples of large collections in earlier times: public squares and fora in ancient Rome (where statuary and war booty were displayed), medieval church treasuries (for artworks of religious significance), and traditional Japanese shrines (where small paintings called ema were hung to draw good fortune).
In the early twentieth century, Museum curators began traveling extensively to collect works of art from cultures around the globe. They often purchased works directly from artists or from curio shops or vendors in remote locations. Due to structural racism, sexism, and classism of the time, most of these early museum staff members were college-educated, affluent white American men. As a result, the collections of many museums were acquired without the full consent or awareness of their original caretaking communities.
As a result of decades of Indigenous activism and the passage of laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Museum has prioritized returning ancestor remains and sacred or ceremonial works to their rightful recipients. We continue to do so whenever provenance research reveals that a work was removed from its place of origin against the wishes of original owners or caretakers.
Museums today are a complex and challenging mix of cultural, educational, and social organizations. Museum professionals must be historians, curators, educators, designers, marketers, fundraisers, photographers, and data processors. They must also think about how their museums can best serve their audiences and the communities they represent. This is a task complicated by the fact that museums, now more than ever, are required to reflect a more inclusive worldview. To do so, they must make sure that their collections are representative of all of humanity’s diversity and that they are accessible to people from all backgrounds and communities.