The History of Museums

Museums house collections of historical artifacts and other materials for the public to view and learn from. They are run by a director, with a curatorial staff responsible for the care and display of the museum’s items. Some museums have a research division, which conducts studies of the museum’s collection. Others have an education department, in charge of providing interpretation of the museum’s items to the general public. The director usually reports to a higher body, such as a governmental department or board of trustees.

Museums can be found all over the world, with a wide range of specialties including fine arts, applied art, archaeology, ethnology and anthropology, natural history, cultural history, military history, science, technology, children’s museums, botanical and zoological gardens, and even numismatics and philately. Many are famous landmarks, such as the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum.

While the main function of museums has traditionally focused on collecting, preserving and researching objects, there is a growing emphasis on exhibitions, learning and audiences. This has been fueled in part by the increasing internationalization of museums and their associated institutions, and by the need to address a number of new challenges, including the need for museum practices to be responsive to the needs of diverse audiences.

As such, it is important to consider the history of museum practices in order to understand how museums have evolved and their relevance today. While some of this history is rooted in traditional ideologies, such as nationalism and imperialism, there has also been a need to address the ways in which museums are structured, organized and interpreted.

The modern museum emerged in tandem with the emergence of several important social movements in 18th and 19th century Europe: the institution of the nation; a new era of colonialism, in which empire building was coupled with democratic ideals; and a new era of Enlightenment philosophy. The result was that museums came to serve the purposes of national identity and empire building, as well as of a form of cultural self-definition in places beyond the West.

The early museum resembled private collections of oddities and curios, often called wonder rooms or cabinets of curios. While the public could visit some of these, most were accessible only to the upper classes. In the late 1700s and 1800s, museums developed into more formal institutions, based on the idea that they could show a progressive development of art from prehistory to the present. This was a view that was reinforced in the nineteenth century by the rise of industrial civilization and the need to demonstrate its continuity.

This tended to lead to exhibitions that were arranged chronologically and that were largely based on comparison of visual forms, such as the idea that Greek art preceded Italian Renaissance art and French Neoclassicism. This narrative continues to define much of what is exhibited in art museums today. A movement has arisen in recent years that seeks to challenge and change these conventions.