Museum History – The Role of the Museum Historian

The museum historian is sometimes stereotyped as a dusty figure hiding away in a dark room. While museums have moved beyond merely displaying artifacts, the historian still plays an important role in interpreting those objects and their historical context to visitors. Historians in museums today are just as likely to be found in a gallery as in the library, and just as much involved with the interpretation of a collection of objects to the public as they are with research or teaching.

The concept of a museum has evolved over time, reflecting changing impulses and social, cultural and political trends. The first museums, and the museums as we know them today, grew out of a passion for all things handmade and for the beauty and strangeness of nature. These impulses, in conjunction with a desire to educate and inspire the public, still drive museums today.

Whether in the field of art, natural history or world culture, our museums are evolving rapidly. In the last century alone, many institutions have had to rethink their historical narratives in response to changes in society, technology and politics. Museums are also embracing the challenge to present their collections in a way that brings history into the contemporary world.

A museum is an institution that preserves and interprets primary tangible evidence of human culture and the environment. The word “museum,” which has classical roots, originally indicated a shrine to the Muses—the classical Greek goddesses of inspiration—and later came to denote a place for philosophical discussion and the preservation of intellectual heritage. The great museum of Alexandria, established early in the 3rd century bce, was more like a prototype university with its extensive libraries than a place for the display of artifacts.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the museum emerged as a national and then global institution. This occurred simultaneously with the growth of nationalism fused with colonial expansion and of democracy. Museums were often seen as tools of this process, and many scholars have argued that the modern museum as a secular space for the preservation and interpretation of objects was largely invented in Europe.

Today, the museum has become a multi-faceted institution that may include exhibition spaces and archives as well as teaching and research facilities. The museum of the future will be even more complex, as the blending of different disciplines and media continues to evolve. Museum professionals will need to be able to function in new and varied ways, as they must also be marketers, designers, fundraisers or photographers. This will require a wide range of skills and training, including the formal education that most museum professionals receive through graduate degrees in museum studies or public history.

The Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park and the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts are built upon this rich heritage of museum history. We strive to exhibit the best and most current best practices of museum history while remaining true to its motivating impulses for education and conservation.