A museum history is the study of the history of museums. Its roots can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. The word “museum” is derived from the nine classical Greek goddesses of inspiration. But the famed “Museion” of ancient Alexandria was more of a library than a place for the display of objects. Today, scholars date the first museums to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Throughout history, museum collections have been exhibited for many reasons, including religious, artistic, and recreational purposes. Ancient Rome, for example, had public squares for displaying statues and sacred objects. Similarly, medieval church treasuries held sacred objects, and traditional Japanese shrines hung small paintings to attract good luck.
Museum collections are products of a specific period and culture, and they are rooted in a complex social and political history. Because of this, collections sometimes raise ethical concerns today. Questions such as questionable provenances and exploitative collection practices may require action on the part of museum professionals and society. One of the ways to address such issues is through museum education.
While museums and their staff aren’t necessarily collectors, they do often select and assemble objects for display. The French word collectionner is rarely used today, as it implies private collectors and accumulation. The term collection is more generally used today to describe a group of objects whose individuality is retained but which are assembled logically. Such collections include toothpick collections, oral history collections, memories, scientific experiments, and more.
Methods of collecting
Museums have a variety of methods of collecting. Some collect items for their artistic value or cultural influence, and others collect to preserve the past and educate the public. Regardless of the reason, museums are tasked with preserving cultural heritage for future generations. But what exactly is the purpose of collecting objects?
Museums often develop collections policies to guide their decisions about what objects to collect. These policies should include reasons why a particular object should be collected and why it should not. These reasons could include size, how well the museum can preserve it, or whether the object is connected to the museum’s mission.
Purposes of museums
The primary purpose of museums is to connect people with the major stories of our world, but they can do so much more than that. Museums serve as a place to engage deeply with the past and the present. But how should we define the purposes of our museums? We need to look beyond the collection and the display.
The ICOM Committee for Museum Definition (MDPP) is working on a new definition of the term. The committee’s chair, Jetty Sandahl, notes that the old definition does not include central values or assumptions that describe a museum. It also fails to recognize the importance of communities in a museum’s purpose.
Impact of colonialism
The Impact of Colonialism on Museum History examines European museum efforts to confront and investigate the legacy of colonialism. As colonial history is increasingly brought into the public consciousness, museum exhibitions are challenging dominant white and European narratives about the history of the colonized world. They ask, “What is our responsibility to the people who were colonized?”
The impact of colonialism on museum history has been profound. Museums throughout Europe have been forced to reinvent themselves because of this history. For example, ethnographic collections have been relocated and redesigned, and museums have been closed and re-opened, reconstituted, or renamed. The Colonial Museum of Haarlem, for example, was renamed the Tropenmuseum and opened a new museum in its place.