The Museum and Its Importance

The museum preserves the past, connects us with it, and tells stories about heroes, long extinct creatures, and unthinkable monsters. It also tells about the development of civilization and the birth of religion. But the most important mission of the modern museum is to create bridges between people and invite them to be inspired.

The word museum derives from the nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of inspiration. Scholars generally place the earliest museum as a curated collection in 17th-century Europe, but there were earlier collections and sites of display: public squares and fora in ancient Rome (where statuary and war booty were displayed), medieval church treasuries (for art and treasure), and traditional Japanese shrines, where small paintings called ema hung to attract good fortune.

Aristotle’s school in Athens, known as the Lyceum, was arguably one of the first museums. The mouseion attached to the school was home to a collection of natural history specimens, which were then used for research purposes. This was the first example of a museum that was linked to the study of biology, and it laid the foundation for the scientific method.

In the 19th century, Napoleon’s conquest of Europe led to the creation of many museums, especially in major capital cities. These became a focus of cultural and national pride, serving as an instrument of nationalism fused with imperial expansion.

By the end of the 20th century, museums were increasingly being confronted by movements that were attempting to address and replace some of their fundamental assumptions. These challenges were focused not just on the content of museum exhibitions and displays, but also on the way museums were organized and built—from their architecture down to how labels were written.

Museums were often perceived as being rooted in the dominant Western worldview, and despite some attempts at self-criticism, museums continued to operate within clear colonial, national, and imperial narratives. During the 1980s and 1990s, several movements sought to understand these narratives, as well as challenge them, in order to promote more inclusive and equitable models of knowledge production and dissemination.

While the majority of museums today are still largely rooted in European traditions and practices, their influence on places outside the West has grown significantly over the past two decades. This has resulted in the need to expand and diversify museological theory and practice. A number of new initiatives have been launched to support this effort, including research centers, international networks, and a variety of training opportunities. In addition, a variety of other institutions are now developing that are working to coordinate, develop, and promote museums around the world. This includes universities and colleges, as well as private sector organizations. These initiatives are helping to ensure that the museum is not just a repository of objects but a dynamic and responsive institution, capable of adapting to the rapidly changing needs of its global audience. This is an urgent task that is essential to the success of the museum as a catalyst for learning and dialogue in our ever-more connected world.