The Field of Museum History

museum history

Museums have been established for a variety of reasons: to serve as recreational facilities, as scholarly venues, or as educational resources; to stimulate the economy of the region in which they are located; to promote civic pride and nationalistic endeavour; and, at times, to transmit overtly ideological concepts. Despite the great diversity of their purpose and form, museums have in common the desire to preserve and interpret the material evidence of human activity.

Museum history is a wide field encompassing the study of the development of museum collections, gallery spaces, and exhibition design. Historians interested in this subject are concerned with the ways museums communicate historical knowledge and can influence our understanding of a given culture or period. They are also concerned with the ways in which museums have changed over time. This collection of articles examines a broad range of topics related to museum history, including reflections on the special qualities that make art museums unique and an examination of how museums have shaped our perceptions of cultural heritage.

The English word museum comes from the Greek term mouseion which originally meant a temple or place of worship to the Muses (the patron deities of the arts and sciences). The word later came to mean any gathering of items and collections, then, in the 17th century, it was used to describe a collection of natural specimens assembled by John Tradescant (1570-1638) which became the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the first modern museum.

In the early 21st century museums began to change significantly. This movement was partially fueled by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, but it also stemmed from a renewed enthusiasm among museum professionals. Many large museums have begun to recognize parts of their dark past and are moving towards a new future. It remains to be seen whether this change will continue or if museums will revert back to old behaviors.

Historians may be employed by a traditional museum, but they can also work in historic houses with collections, National Park Service visitor centers, private art galleries, and other institutions that house artifacts. Regardless of where they are employed, historians must be familiar with the methods and techniques involved in the preservation, conservation, and interpretation of museum collections and exhibitions.

While the success of a museum exhibit can be influenced by the use of technological devices such as holograms and strobe lights, the true strength of an exhibit comes from the quality of its research and writing. The archivist who has access to a wealth of documents that can help them create an interpretive framework for an exhibit is able to communicate far more information than someone who relies solely on a television documentary or the latest textbook. For this reason, the library staff has assembled this collection of resources on the history of museums and collecting that will provide an introduction to this fascinating field of study. These books are available in the University Libraries’ collection and can be requested using our ILLiad system.