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The History of Museums, from "Cabinets of Curiosity" to Today

As our understanding of history has evolved, so has the way we learn about it.

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  • 'Ole Worm’s Cabinet of Wonder: Natural Specimens and Wondrous Monsters', engraved in 1655.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Millions of people from across the globe visit museums each year, eager to experience for themselves objects from the past which they would otherwise only see in a book or on a screen. These institutions play an invaluable role in preserving for posterity the history and cultural heritage of our ancestors. The way in which we interpret these objects may also give us better insight into how to deal with the challenges of the present day. Yet, it has taken many centuries for museums to evolve into the institutions we recognize today. 

The origins of the word “museum” provide a clue as to how it may have all started. In Ancient Greek, the word mouseion, literally meaning “site of the Muses”, originally referred to a temple dedicated to the nine mythological Greek goddesses of the arts. Over time, this term came to mean a place of learning and study. 

During the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle founded a school in Athens called the Lyceum. In what is one of the very first known examples of a curated collection, the mouseion attached to this establishment housed the philosopher’s assortment of natural history specimens for research purposes. 

When a similar academy was established in Alexandria just over a century later, the entire seat of learning became known as the Mouseion. By the time that the Romans began to use “museum” as a Latinized form of the earlier Greek mouseion, the term was generally used to describe a place for philosophical discussion rather than the meaning it had acquired during Aristotle’s era as a home for a specific collection of objects.

In Western Europe, the concept of amassing collections of natural history specimens or interesting curios, both for study and display, first became widely fashionable during the Renaissance period. Beginning in Italy in the late 14th century, this was a time of cultural revolution, inspired by a revival in interest in classical antiquity. It also sparked a new era of exploration, which, in turn, significantly extended the range of objects available to form interesting and unusual collections.

The so-called “Cabinets of Curiosities” of this period may well be regarded as the precursors to modern museums. Designed to house collections of extraordinary items, they were intended to be seen and admired by guests and ranged in size from a small cabinet to an entire room, depending on the status of their owner.  

In time, the word “museum” became associated with some of the most famous collections such as that of the Danish scientist, Ole Worm. During the mid-17th century, he amassed a huge collection of rare items ranging from taxidermy and rock samples to Roman jewelry and scientific instruments. Following his death, his son William published an illustrated catalogue of the collection entitled “Museum Wormianum”

At around the same time, the word “museum” also became associated with the Tradescant family collection. The English naturalist and horticulturalist, John Tradescant, travelled widely in pursuit of rare flora and fauna, but also picked up an eclectic mix of other items from his time abroad. Eventually, he amassed such a vast treasure trove of curiosities that its displays filled several rooms of his Lambeth home. In the 1630s, he opened this section of his house to the public and charged a small entrance fee.

Following his father’s death in 1638, John Tradescant Junior continued to expand the collection, which became popularly known as the “Lambeth Ark”, and eventually, in the early 1650s, set about cataloguing it all. Another avid collector, Elias Ashmole, helped him in this gargantuan task and, in 1656, paid for the catalogue to be published under the title of the Musaeum Tradescantianum, or a Collection of Rarities preserved at South Lambeth near London by John Tradescant.

Eventually, the collection ended up in the hands of the University of Oxford via Elias Ashmole, who had inherited it following the death of Tradescant Junior. Work began on a new building in Oxford’s Broad Street to house the vast collection, and the Ashmolean Museum first opened to the public in May 1683. 

Notable for being the first university museum in the world, the Ashmolean was designed from the start to serve a dual purpose of housing and conserving the contents of its collection in such a way as to aid academic research, whilst at the same time making them accessible to the public. As a result, the Ashmolean is often cited as being the first institution to resemble the museums of today.

In 1753, Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed to the British nation, for a sum of £20,000, his vast collection of over 80,000 “natural and artificial rarities”, and an Act of Parliament was passed to establish the British Museum. Sloane’s impressive collection formed the basis of what has today become one of the world’s foremost museums. However, it is important to acknowledge that this was in part funded by profits derived from sugar plantations worked by enslaved people in Jamaica. 

The British Museum is notable for being the world’s first national museum and it was also among the very first to be publicly owned rather than under the control of a wealthy individual or academic institution. Its founders also intended the museum to be freely accessible to all, although it only truly became open to allcomers following a change in the way in which tickets were distributed during the 1830s.

Following the overthrow of the monarchy during the French Revolution, the National Assembly ruling body decided to open the former royal palace in Paris as a museum. The Louvre opened to the public in August 1793, only seven months after the death at the guillotine of its former occupant, King Louis XVI. It marked the culmination of a long campaign to give the French public access to the royal art collection and proved a landmark moment in the concept of the museum as a public institution. 

Celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, South Carolina’s Charleston Museum is widely regarded to be the first institution of its type in the United States. Members of the Charleston Library Society, one of the country’s oldest cultural institutions, donated natural history specimens to form the basis of the museum’s original collection. For many years, the Charleston Museum lacked a permanent home, moving to several different locations before finally settling at its current premises on Meeting Street. 

In contrast, Baltimore’s Peale Museum (which opened in 1814) is notable for being among the very first in the States to occupy a building created for the express purpose of housing a museum. Its founder, Rembrandt Peale, was the son of Charles Wilson Peale, who himself played a prominent part in establishing another of the country’s earliest museums, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in 1805.

Most early American museums were not publicly owned, but there was one notable exception, namely the Smithsonian. This venerable institution’s origins lie in a bequest made by a British scientist named James Smithson. Upon his death in 1829, Smithson left his considerable estate to his nephew on the proviso that if he should die without heirs, the estate would then pass “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”.

Smithson’s nephew died just six years later, leaving no children, and the US Government became the recipient of a legacy amounting to more than 100,000 gold sovereigns (equivalent to the then-eyewatering sum of just over half a million dollars). The Smithsonian Institute was established by a Deed of Trust and the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, now affectionately known as The Castle, first opened its doors to the public in 1855. 

The reasons for Smithson’s bequest remain unclear, as he had no obvious connection with the United States. As the illegitimate son of an English duke, he struggled for recognition throughout his life, so he may have been inspired by a desire to be remembered posthumously. If that was his motivation, he certainly succeeded, as the Institute which bears his name is now one of the world’s pre-eminent museum and research establishments. 

Such was the rise in popularity of museums during the second half of the 19th century that they became a common feature of towns and cities across the globe, many of them housed in new buildings. Whether the museums were based in major capital cities or small provincial towns, they all provided the same vital function of preserving that place’s cultural, scientific and historic heritage.

Museums have continued to evolve ever since. Landmarks of historical or cultural significance have themselves become museums, enabling the collections associated with those places to be displayed in their original setting. Museums have also become more diverse, moving away from the trend for large institutions displaying wide-ranging collections into smaller and more specialized spaces focusing on one particular topic. In the aftermath of both World Wars, museums continue to play a vital role in documenting the mistakes of the past in the hope that it might prevent them from being repeated in the future.

Today’s museums face the challenge of adapting to changing visitor needs. Modern visitors expect to be entertained as well as educated, meaning that displays have become less static and much more interactive. Reflecting today’s digital age, museum collections are also becoming widely available online, allowing for virtual visitors from all over the world to share in their treasures. 

Modern history lovers are incredibly fortunate to be able to access the world’s greatest museums at the click of a button. Nothing can beat the thrill of seeing a rare historical item in person, though, and for that reason our physical museums deserve to be cherished and preserved.