What is a Museum?

A museum is a place where people come to view collections of artifacts, natural history, or cultural history. Museums are dedicated to the care, preservation, and interpretation of their collections and offer a unique experience for people of all backgrounds. Museums are a vital part of our shared human heritage and a source of inspiration, education, and a sense of wonder.

During their long history museums have developed in many different ways, reflecting the broader trends of society and their own specific institutional contexts. In their earliest forms they may have simply served as repositories for large private collections. However, the modern concept of museum as institution has been shaped by a variety of factors, including social change and the influence of professional organizations. The definitions of major professional organizations differ slightly, but they all include the idea that museums serve the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting historical objects.

The word museum derives from the Greek Mouseion, a seat of the Muses, nine sister goddesses who symbolized the arts and sciences. The Latin word museum came from this and originally meant “a house of the Muses.” The idea behind a museum was to dedicate a space to these sisters and their works.

In the early modern period, museums evolved from personal collectors’ collections to institutions that promoted research and the dissemination of knowledge. This was a result of growing economic prosperity and changing social attitudes towards the preservation of objects and their educational value. Museums were also becoming more popular as a form of leisure activity.

Following World War II museums shifted their focus toward the needs of a more diverse and better educated society. Museums developed as a place to find a sense of identity, reality, and stability in a world that was increasingly filled with plastics and reproduced images. Museums became a place where people came to see the “real thing” that was a counterbalance to this world of manufactured images and a deteriorating natural environment.

After the war, museums evolved even more. Curators and their colleagues began to employ scientists as conservators, designers to work on exhibitions and other design projects, information scientists to manage the scientific data inherent in collections, and educators to develop programs for both students and the general public. This allowed museums to become a true service provider for the wider community, not just the scholars, and to reach a broad cross section of the population.

Museums today continue to develop in a range of ways to meet the varied needs of their communities. Some are serving as incubators for new technologies, while others, like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, are acting as engines for economic development and regeneration. Whatever the case, the goal of museums is to communicate an enduring and universal message that can be appreciated and understood by all. The success of a museum is largely determined by how well it tells its story and the effectiveness of its exhibits in communicating that message.