A History of Museums

A short history of “museums”.

America’s oldest public museum, in Charleston SC

Museums are enormously popular. There are roughly 900 million individual visits to museums in the United States each year—about three visits per each person in the US, and around six times as many visits as all professional sports events, combined. Museums such as the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the Rockies, and the Carnegie Museum are some of the largest tourist attractions in their cities.

People have always been fascinated with strange or unusual objects, and have probably been collecting them since the beginning of time. We know that the Babylonian King Nabonidus had a collection of shells, clay tablets, and other objects that he kept in his palace. They were even carefully labeled with clay cylinders, written in three languages, which described where they had come from.

The modern word “museum” comes from the Greek mouseion, which indicated a temple that was dedicated to the Nine Muses, the goddesses who provided inspiration to artists, musicians and philosophers. The mouseion was a place to “muse”, to ponder and contemplate on deep thoughts. Often, they were places where philosophers or mathematicians gathered to discuss ideas.

In Roman times and in the Dark Ages which followed, it was common for an Emperor or King to display his power and wealth with collections of wild animals or with collections of weapons, armor and other objects that had been captured during conquests. By the 17thcentury, wealthy society gentleman played on this same idea of showing off one’s wealth and education with “curio cabinets”, which were large display cases filled with skulls, minerals, fossils, artifacts from previous civilizations, exotic art, or other curiosities. In 15thcentury Florence, Lorenzo de Medici opened his curio cabinets to the public, and he seems to have been the first to use the word “museum” to refer to such a display. In 1683, Elias Ashmole moved his extensive collection to a building at Oxford University, where it became known as the Ashmolean Museum. Among other artifacts, it had ancient coins, Arabic books, and a taxidermy Dodo.

Some of the original display cases from the Charleston Museum

In 1786, a Philadelphia painter named Charles Willson Peale opened his collections to the public, and displayed both his own paintings and his collection of curios (such as mammoth bones and mounted bird skeletons) in their own building. He called it a “Cabinet of Curiosities”, and he was soon followed by other wealthy patrons who made their own collections available for public exhibit.

In time, as despotic monarchies fell and were replaced by democratic-minded revolutionaries, the new government officials began to view these displays as an aid to the education of the public, and publicly-funded museums began to appear. The British Museum opened in 1759, the Hermitage Museum in Russia was founded in 1764, and the Louvre Art Museum in Paris opened its doors in 1793. The first public museum in America opened in Charleston SC in 1824. It is still open today.

As museums began to specialize, their numbers grew. By 1900 there were art museums, nature museums, history museums and science museums in virtually every city of any importance. Today it is estimated that there are at least 35,000 museums in the United States, ranging from large public institutions to tiny privately-run displays.

There have been problems, however. The early national museums often reflected the ethos of the colonial conquerors who, like the Roman Emperors before them, wanted to show off the vast extent of their conquests and the peoples they had conquered. In its beginnings, the science of archaeology was less of a “science” and more akin to a tomb-robbing treasure hunt. The British and French in particular looted their colonial nations of art, historical objects, archaeological treasures and, in many cases, human remains. The United States, in the 19th century, did the same with the native peoples that it conquered.

In more recent years, moreover, there has been a surge in private collectors who are willing to pay for artifacts regardless of where they came from or how they got here, which has in turn fed a thriving black market in stolen, looted or counterfeit artifacts. Some of these end up in museum collections.

This sordid history has now sparked a vigorous debate, as the ethics of museums are being examined and as native cultures and former colonial peoples now demand that these plundered artifacts be returned to them.  In an effort to “de-colonize” museums, many former colonies are now using legal restrictions to keep their cultural and natural-history artifacts in their own countries, to be displayed in their own museums. And in response there have been calls made in some former colonial powers to return and repatriate plundered objects to their country of origin.

Many museums, however, are hesitant to give up their collections—especially objects from places like Egypt or China or Meso-America. For some, their reasons are education-based: they argue that it is important for people around the world to be able to view and learn about these cultures through displays of their historical artifacts. For others, the reasons are, frankly, economic: visitors pay to see famous objects like the Rosetta Stone or Ishtar Gate, Greek and Roman statues and pottery, or the fossils of dinosaurs or human ancestors, and museums are very reluctant to give them back.

In 1990, the US passed the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGRA), which set up a process for returning archaeological artifacts to Native American tribes who request it. Since then, some 800,000 museum artifacts have been returned to various Native American nations.

It is an issue that many museums are still grappling with.

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