What Is a Museum?

A museum is a place for the preservation and interpretation of art and artifacts, as well as for teaching history, culture, science and society. There are a wide range of museums, from national treasures to venues with collections so large they’re worth visiting alone. The oldest and most famous is the British Museum in London, which houses the largest collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities in existence. It is also one of the most visited museums in the world.

The word museum derives from the Greek Mouseion, meaning a place dedicated to the nine sister goddesses of art and science, known as the Muses. The word was borrowed into English about 300 years ago.

Museums have always been educational institutions. Evidence of the human propensity to collect, inquire into and communicate about objects can be found as early as Paleolithic burials and copies of old inscriptions from Larsa in Mesopotamia. By the mid-20th century, studies by researchers like Susie Wilkening and James Chung had shown that, even though many people perceive museums as luxury or leisure, they play a major role in education.

As museums began to identify a more clear role, they developed a body of theory, now known as museology, that provides a framework for their work. Nevertheless, the apprenticeship model of training for museum professionals meant that changes were slow to take hold. It was also a time of economic reassessment and, therefore, of limited resources.

In spite of this, there were many significant developments in museum practice. The establishment of museums in new countries and regions was common. Those museums were usually established to serve the local population as well as to foster nationalistic fervor. It was also the time when museums began to hire scientists as conservators, designers to help with exhibits and other facilities, information scientists to handle the scientific data that is inherent in the collections, and educators to develop courses for students and the public.

In addition, museums increasingly sought to interpret historic and natural landscapes as well as buildings. This led to the renovation of places such as Mystic Seaport, Connecticut and Ironbridge Gorge in England as maritime museums, and to the use of historic sites like the walled medieval cities of Suzdal and Vladimir in Russia as historical museums.

Despite these advances, museums face many challenges. In some countries, governments are reducing or cutting funding for their work. In addition, some museums are being challenged by a number of important issues such as decolonisation and repatriation, and the need to be more inclusive. In these difficult times, museums can make a difference by focusing on their mission to educate and inspire. By doing so they can show adults that museums are not just for children and can be fun for them too. They can also challenge perceptions that they are stuffy and ‘old fashioned’, while ensuring that they continue to be the source of high-quality education in the 21st century.