The History of Museums

As more museums acquire the power to shape public history, they face challenges in maintaining a balance between historical accuracy and the desire to present their collections as entertaining to visitors. Despite the dazzling holograms and interactive programs in many museum exhibits, museums must be able to offer something more than simply a spectacle. The success of a museum exhibition, ultimately, is determined by the ability to present a coherent, understandable, and compelling interpretation of the past. While museums do not claim to tell the whole truth, they are an essential part of our shared cultural heritage and an invaluable resource for historians and other scholars.

The history of museums stretches back as far as the origins of art and culture itself. Some of the earliest museums were private collections of art and rare or curious natural objects, displayed in so-called wonder rooms or cabinets of curiosities. While these early collections were often made available for public viewing, access was generally limited and at the discretion of the owner or curator.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, museums began to take on a more institutional form. They were established by groups of private citizens who joined forces to raise funds and establish a museum. The museum movement was aided by the development of a class of wealthy individuals who spent lavish sums on collecting art and other objects to enhance their social status and prestige.

Museums also gained momentum as a result of the Enlightenment, which encouraged the study of science and other disciplines through the collection and display of specimens. The British Museum, for example, began as the personal collection of Sir Hans Sloane. His botanical specimens were combined with his ethnographic and archeological materials, and housed in an imposing building that featured the image of Britannia—the personification of the British Empire—at the apex of its great triangular pediment.

During the latter half of the 20th century, the Museum continued to grow and evolve. It expanded its gallery spaces and made a series of important acquisitions, including Johannes Vermeer’s Artist in His Studio; Stella Kramrisch’s extensive bequest of Indian, Nepalese, and Tibetan objects; and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Bust of Benjamin Franklin. The Museum also renovated and reinstalled its galleries and opened McCormick Hall, an addition in Venetian Gothic style designed by Ralph Adams Cram.

In addition, the Museum undertook a major rethink of its historical interpretations and shifted its emphasis from the idea that the arts were merely decorative to their central importance in telling our common human story. This work was led by Director Frank Jewett Mather Jr., who took a hands-on approach to his responsibilities as he cleaned and rehung paintings himself, and by Ernest DeWald, who served as a member of the Monuments Men at the end of World War II, helping to rescue Europe’s artistic treasures from the wreckage of Nazi Germany.

Today, the Museum continues to strive for its mission of educating and enriching the public through its exhibitions and research. Its employees are trained at the graduate level through a variety of programs, including M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in public history and museum studies, and on a more specialized basis through internships and short-term training programs.