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MUSEUMS define relationships between life, community, the nation, and the world through the interpretation of objects, experience, and the environment. These institutions range from community-based museums, such as the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and Chinatown History Museum and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, to house museums like Mount Vernon and Monticello. Among other developments are historic sites, reconstructed towns and villages such as the Boston African American National Historic Site and Lowell National Historic Park in Massachusetts; the Henry Ford Museum and Green-field Village, Michigan; and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. There are also national museums of art and science that include the National Museums of the Smithsonian Institution, Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Field Museum of Chicago, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, among thousands of others.

The sheer variety of museums evinces the need to address different constituencies and to engage different interpretations of historic events that recover the multiplicity of cultures that constitute American identity. In the United States, the provision of social and civic spaces by government, private, and nonprofit organizations points to the complex nature of the relationship between knowledge and identity that has developed in the last fifty years. A 1997 study of state museum organizations revealed an estimated 16,000 museums in operation. Because several hundred new institutions appear each year, this estimate may have risen to over 20,000. According to a 1999 census report, museums average 865 million visits per year, or 2.3 million visits a day, a statistic suggestive of their importance in American life.

Emergence of Museums in America

While thousands of museums exist in contemporary rural and urban landscapes, their precedents in the United States extend to the late eighteenth century. The history of this earlier museum era begins after the 1770s and offers a different starting point for the founding of museums in the United States. Museums and cabinets existed nearly a century before the "great age" of museum building from 1870 to 1920, which resulted in the creation of large beaux-arts structures with classically inspired exteriors that housed collections of art and natural history. Instead of exhibiting the grand collections belonging to an aristocracy or monarchy, the museum in America has much humbler beginnings. In 1773, the Charleston Library Society founded a private museum that featured a collection of artifacts, birds, and books available to its members, until it was destroyed in wartime three years later. Once the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) was over, attention was turned toward the development of useful knowledge, and collections were one way of displaying the natural materials that could support the growth of industry and promote a sense of unity. Access to such early collections, also known as "cabinets," was possible through membership in philosophical societies or through courses taken in college. For some, awareness of a need to establish a sense of collective identity prompted them to open their collections to a paying public.

In 1780s Philadelphia, Dr. Abraham Chovet, Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere, and Charles Willson Peale each formed their own semiprivate cabinets accessible to a public made of the professional class for an admission fee. Such businesses offered their owners opportunities for pursuing nontraditional employment as an entrepreneur. In running them, they honed their skills in dealing with the public, and by experiment and experience, developed their respective displays. A public largely composed of merchants, government bureaucrats, and military officers paid admission fees equal to a laborer's daily wage. Sometimes admission fees were deliberately kept high, which effectively worked as a filter mechanism that limited the visitors to a specific group. Dr. Abraham Chovet maintained a cabinet of anatomical waxworks as a means of training physicians about the body at a time when actual subjects were in short supply. High admission fees ensured that students of physick (medicine) remained its main audience.

General museums of natural history and art charged admission fees of a half or quarter of a dollar to see examples of natural history, portraiture, waxworks, and trade goods. In port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or New Haven, such extensive collections were entirely housed under a single roof. In 1784, Swiss expatriate Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere opened his cabinet for admission to the public in his Arch Street, Philadelphia, home, which he advertised in newspapers and broadsides as "The American Musaeum." For half of a dollar at an appointed time, he offered audiences tours of books, prints, archival collections, and the artifacts and antiquities of indigenous peoples. Everything was auctioned off after his death in 1785. Artist and saddle maker Charles Willson Peale was familiar with Du Simitiere's failed effort. He began his museum by building extensions onto his home, first building a portrait gallery to display his work to prospective clients, and then adding rooms to accommodate his collections of natural history. He maintained his practice of portraiture, thereby ensuring an income

to support his large family, and he developed a style for the portraits of national heroes he displayed above cases of specimens. Peale continued to expand his home to house a growing collection. In 1794 he was able to rent rooms in the American Philosophical Society building and later, in 1802, the museum was moved to the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall), where it remained until 1829. Peale's Museum developed differently than museums in New York and Boston that catered more to popular entertainment. In part this was due to Peale's duties as curator of the American Philosophical Society and the desire of leaders to maintain Philadelphia's prominence as a cultural capital of the United States. Professors of natural philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania used the museum collections in courses on natural history, and Peale also delivered a series of lectures on natural history at the University. By the 1810s, the end of this mutual arrangement arrived. The University built its own museum and collections, which marked the growing divide between higher education, the rise of specialized societies, and popular efforts to educate citizens about natural history. Peale built a lecture room in his museum, used for scientific demonstrations and lectures on natural history. Other universities and colleges developed their own museums, where professors employed teaching collections in courses on anatomy and natural philosophy. This presaged the development of entertainment rather than science as a means of attracting customers to the museum.

When New York became the capital of the United States in 1790, the Tammany Society founded its own museum, dedicated to the collection of American Indian artifacts. First located in a rented room in City Hall, the museum quickly outgrew its initial home and was moved to the Old Exchange Building. In 1795, unable to maintain the museum, the Society transferred ownership to the museum keeper, Gardiner Baker. Baker's Tammany or American Museum (1795–1798) was dedicated to waxworks displays, paintings and collections of American Indian artifacts, automata, coins, fossils, insects, mounted animals, and a menage of live animals. Such a program of selected materials was followed by other museums. Aside from the entertainment, displays fell into two large categories—natural or artificial curiosities—the second designating objects that were made by people.

When Baker died in 1798, the museum collections were auctioned off and became part of Edward Savage's Museum, which was, in turn, sold to John Scudder for his American Museum in the 1820s, and by the 1840s, these collections were incorporated into Barnum's American Museum. In Boston, Daniel Bowen established his Columbian Museum (1795–1803), which featured extensive waxworks displays, paintings, and collections of animals, like those of Baker's and Peale's Museums. Bowen exited the museum business after three disastrous fires and worked with his nephew, the engraver Abel Bowen.

In this formative period between 1785 and 1820, museums gained additional support. City and state government provided support through the charge of a nominal fee ("one peppercorn" or minimal rent) for the lease of an available vacant building. For example, Scudder's American Museum began by renting the old New York Almshouse in City Hall Park in 1810. In 1816, Peale solicited the help of Philadelphia's City Corporation, newly owner of the State House, to establish a reasonable rent for his museum. Often, the interior of an older building was completely modified to hold display cases for arrangements of mounted specimens of the animal kingdom. Less frequently, a museum edifice was designed and built to order, as was the short-lived Philadelphia Museum (1829), Bowen's Columbian Museum in Boston (1803), and Peale's Museum in Baltimore (1814–1829), the latter operated by Peale's sons as a private business for profit. Fiercely competitive and dependent on profits from admission fees, museums were difficult to maintain given the uncertainty of an economy that suffered periodic depressions. Support from the federal government was negligible. Not until the formation of the National Park Service in the 1920s and the establishment of the Smithsonian did the U.S. government provide complete support for a public museum.

Changes in Collecting

Collecting became institutionalized between 1819 and 1864, and institutions dealing with the past—museums, historical societies, and collections—began to systematically develop their record keeping of acquisitions, inventories, and displays. Different fields of study branched from the humanities and the sciences, and institutions became more specific in their focus. Popular interest in the natural sciences spurred a broad range of activities and a market for lectures, textbooks, and journals channeled through the lyceum circuit by the 1840s. A decade later, many secondary schools and colleges featured their own collection of specimens, created by teachers and students. The growth of cities saw an increase in the number of museums in other national regions.

In general, two main types of museum emerged after midcentury—those devoted to the natural sciences, and those devoted to the arts. Not included in the histories of these large institutions is the "dime museum," which ranged from curio halls to storefronts that exhibited living anomalies, magic shows, plays, waxworks, or menageries. The predecessor of the dime museum was P. T. Barnum's American Museum (1841–1865) in downtown New York. Barnum's Museum became a national attraction that offered visitors displays of natural and scientific specimens along with live animal shows, plays, waxworks, sideshows, and plays in one location, for a quarter of a dollar. Together with Moses Kimball, proprietor of the Boston Museum, Barnum purchased the collections of museums at auction, recycling the contents of previous institutions unable to survive periodic depressions. Although Barnum left the museum business after three fires destroyed his collections in New York, the success of his institution inspired other museum entrepreneurs to follow his lead.

In the Midwest, museums were established near the waterfront in Cincinnati and St. Louis in the early 1800s. William Clark, Governor and Secretary of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, built an Indian council chamber and museum in 1816, filled with portraits by George Catlin and artifacts of various Native American peoples. Until his death in 1838, Clark's museum served as an introduction for visitors to the West and its resources. Part of Clark's collections was incorporated into Albert Koch's St. Louis Museum and dispersed after 1841, when Koch departed for Europe. Cincinnati's Western Museum (1820–1867) began as a scientific institution and was doing poorly by 1823; its new owner, Joseph Dorfeuille, transformed the museum into a successful popular entertainment. The Western Museum's most successful draw was the "Infernal Regions," a display that featured waxworks and special effects designed by the artist Hiram Powers. Low admission fees, central locations, and a wide variety of entertainment under one roof offered another option for spending leisure time in expanding industrial centers.

The display of industrial achievement had a profound influence on exhibition culture in the antebellum period. In 1853, the first U.S. World's Fair, the New York Crystal Palace, opened, followed by the Sanitary Fairs of the Civil War era. Fairs highlighted national achievement, rather than focusing on an individual artist, through participation in these venues. These events exposed larger segments of the population to the arts of painting and sculpture in addition to displays of manufacturing and industrial power. The rise of exhibitions and world's fairs offered opportunities for many to purchase reproductions, if not the original works on display. Expositions offered opportunities for public education. As instruments of social control, fairs and museums reiterated the racial and cultural hierarchy of white dominance. Access to museums by people of color was often restricted, and even specified in admission policy as early as 1820 at Scudder's American Museum. Beginning with the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, this restriction was expressed through the organization of living ethnological displays. Indigenous groups from the Philippines and the United States were housed in reservations surrounded by fences and guards, while visitors moved around the areas to watch performances of everyday life. Between 1876 and 1939, fairs took place in St. Louis, Omaha, Cleveland, New Orleans, Dallas, and Seattle. World's fairs and expositions had a close relationship to museums, like that between the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Materials on display became part of museum collections; elements of exposition displays, such as the period room, were developments incorporated into museums. Frequently, former fair buildings became homes for new museums.

Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., developed into important centers for the arts and the natural sciences. The architecture of larger institutions featured an imposing exterior executed in a classical or gothic style that symbolized power on a federal level. In New York, the American Museum of Natural History opened in 1869, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1870. The Castle, the Smithsonian Institution's original red brick gothic building, was visible for a distance from its bare surroundings in Washington, D.C. Its rapidly increasing collections of specimens, some of which came from the 1876 Exposition, were contained in a series of glass cases that lined the walls of the Castle's Great Hall. By the 1880s, the Smithsonian comprised the U.S. National Museum and the Arts and Industries Building. Museums of natural history featured large collections arranged according to the latest scientific taxonomy, supported research, and expeditions for fossils and living specimens. Interest in prehistoric life-forms increased, and the skeletons of large dinosaurs, wooly mammoths, and giant sloths remained immensely popular with the public for the next seventy-five years.

Large science museums were not simply sites for educating students about biology, geology, or chemistry, but illustrated the place of America in the larger world, through the featured display of large collections of specimens culled from around the globe by official exploring expeditions sponsored by the United States government. Smaller regional organizations also formed museums, and their members gave courses in ornithology, geology, mineralogy, or conchology to a local public, as did the Worcester Natural History Society in Massachusetts. Such organizations frequently lacked the staff and collection resources of larger urban institutions, but offered access to natural history through shelves of natural specimens or guided field trips to the surrounding area.

Curators of natural history museums were also involved in another collection activity as anthropology became a distinct discipline, and interest in acquiring the material culture and remains of various indigenous peoples intensified. By the end of the nineteenth century, interest in anthropology led to the development of ethno-graphic exhibit techniques, some influenced by the villages of World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Much of this material was donated to public museums. Although the displays of objects or dioramas of native life received scientific treatment, they also contained a moral dimension. Underpinning approaches to the study of indigenous cultures was a sense of Americans as inheritors of civilization, and the ongoing population decline of many American Indian peoples precipitated interest in the development of representative collections. Little changed until the 1990s, when Native and non-Native curators and scholars began to reevaluate the interpretation and presentation of Native American peoples in museums.

Over the course of the twentieth century, cities increased in physical size, population, and wealth. Museums and related institutions developed and were shaped by the public response to education as entertainment. Gradually, more funds, more services, and more equipment was dedicated to museums and their programs as municipal and state governments realized how tourism contributed to their regions. Higher education and training programs developed the study of art and cultural production, which in turn, shaped the acquisition and display of antiquities, paintings, and sculpture in museums.

Wealthy industrialists contributed to their own collections, which ultimately became a privately or publicly run museum. For two industrialists, objects were seen as the means of conveying history. Henry Ford believed that objects told the story of American history more accurately than texts, and was the largest buyer of Americana in the country, collecting objects and entire buildings, which he moved to Dearborn, Michigan, to create Greenfield Village. Henry Mercer held similar ideas to Ford concerning objects, and sought to create an encyclopedic collection of every implement used by European Americans before 1820. Mercer's museum, built in 1916 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, focused on tools, and his collection of 25,000 artifacts is housed in a seven-story building of his own design in reinforced concrete. Industrialists also worked to found large institutions that later housed numerous private collections displayed for the benefit of public audiences. This specialization began in the early twentieth century, with the emergence of institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.

In the 1930s, museum management shifted; the federal government increasingly became a source of support for museums through grants, and businesses supported and programmed science museums. In the post–World War II era, collectors and philanthropists turned their attention to founding institutions, which focused on national culture, business, and industry. Museums were not just one structure, but could constitute a number of buildings. A particular and specific image of the past was evoked by clustering old buildings in danger of demolition on a new site, renamed and declared an authentic link to the past. Examples of this include Greenfield Village, Old Sturbridge Village, and Colonial Williamsburg. But like many institutions of that time, displays offered a segregated history geared for white audiences. Audiences at these sites are introduced to another reading of the past, visible in a comparison of programming with that a half century earlier. For example, the William Paca House in Annapolis, Maryland, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Virginia, make visible the relationship of slavery to the structure and history of the site, restoring visibility to people fundamental to the economy in the Colonial period and in the early Republic. Sites run by the National Park Service have also under-gone similar shifts in interpretation, which changes the perception and understanding of history for the public. There remains much to be done. Museums are responsive rather than static sites of engagement.

In the early twenty-first century, the history of museums and collection practices are studied in terms of their larger overlapping historical, cultural, and economic contexts. No longer anchored to a national ideal, the architecture of new museums instead attracts tourists, workers, and students and invites connections with local institutions. Programming, outreach, and work with artists and communities have brought museums further into the realm of public attention, sparking support, controversy, or concession over the links between the present and the past. Exhibitions such as the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum or the artists exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's show Sensation make visible the social tensions that surround the display and the ways in which particular narratives are told. The thousands of museums that exist in the United States today testify to the power of material culture and the increasingly central role display maintains across the country.


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See alsoCollecting ; National Park System ; World's Fairs ; andindividual museums; fairs; and expositions

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It is often assumed that museums have been a permanent feature of society, simply because they contain some of the oldest things in the world. In fact, in their current form, museums are surprisingly recent in origin, almost entirely Western in conception, internally confused about their identity, and unsure of their future role.

Museums in the early twenty-first century claim descent from the Museum in Alexandria established in the third century b.c.e., but this is only partly true. That museuma Latin word derived from the Greek mouseion, meaning seat of the museswas an attempt to bring all the fields of human knowledge together into one place. Its library was its most famous feature, complemented with a collection of artifacts. Contemporary accounts describe a huge complex of buildings, including seminar rooms and banqueting halls. It was more like a prototype university than a museum.

The British Museum, effectively the mother of all modern museums, was established in 1753 as a direct emulation of the museum in Alexandria, but this time as a public service, not as an educational institution open only to scholars. Its ambition also was to bring all human knowledge together into one place. Its library, again, was by far its most important feature. The idea that artifacts could be separated from books in the learning process did not emerge until well more than a century later, and then largely for reasons of administrative convenience. It was not until 1998 that the British Library was separated physically from the British Museum, which in the early 2000s is a totally different institution from the one that opened its doors 250 years ago, and yet it still proudly claims that its collection has remained "inviolable" since then. It is in this way that museums create myths about their permanence, though their role has in fact changed out of all recognition over the centuries.


Museums owe their origins to three traits in human nature: the desire to understand the universe, the wish to appreciate the artifacts museums contain, and the impetus to educate others. Each of these motivations has its own history, but none, by itself, necessitates the creation of a museum. One might, for example, have no more need for the objects used in one's research when what was being sought was found. Many archaeological remains are now replaced in the ground whence they came. If one wants to appreciate something, one will tend to look after it, but that does not mean that one will necessarily want to share it with anyone else, apart from a chosen few. This appears to have been the ethos behind the earliest art gallery in the world, the Pinakotheke, established on the Acropolis in Athens in the fifth century b.c.e. As far can be determined from cursory contemporary accounts (nothing physical remains), the museum had a religious purpose and showed paintings for the initiatesand the gods themselvesto view. Though it might have been open to the general public, it would be two millennia before galleries were specially created with that purpose in mind. It was not until there was a commitment to universal education that the modern concept of the museum took root and flourished.

Museums did not emerge at all in societies where the scientific study of the material world was not valued, for example, in ancient China and India, nor in countries dominated by religions that focused people's attention on the spiritual rather than the material world, such as Christianity during certain periods of its history and, more generally, Islam. Museums sprang from the approach to learning advocated by Aristotle: that people can only learn by studying the world around them and trusting the evidence of their own eyes, not by listening to others or reading what they have written.

Early Development

Museums only started to develop in the form in which they are currently know them at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, when amateur scientists began to collect the material evidence of what was still widely assumed to be God's creation. By the sixteenth century many European noblemen had "cabinets of curiosities" containing the unaccountable wonders of nature, such as fossil teeth (thought to be satanic) and flint tools (thought to be thunderbolts) and, increasingly, natural and cultural artifacts gleaned from the newly discovered far-flung corners of the world. By the seventeenth century some of these collections had begun to be systematically studied and categorized. Ole Worm (15881654), a Danish doctor, used his vast collection to prove that so-called unicorn horns actually came from a species of Arctic whalemuch to the chagrin of Scandinavian fishermen, who plied a lucrative trade in supplying such wonders.

The approach of these early scientific collectors was, as it had been in ancient Greece, encyclopedic. The mere activity of collecting similar objects together and placing them in some sort of orderthe standard way of working in museums even in the twenty-first centurywas then an extremely exciting activity. Barriers of accepted thought were being broken on every front. Geological specimens proved that the earth was far older than anyone had imagined, fossils demonstrated the fact of extinction (thought, by most, to be an impossibility within divine creation), and coins revealed the existence of cultures and dynasties previously unknown to history. Without his vast collection of natural history specimens, Charles Darwin (18091882) might never have formulated his theory of evolution. Working in the Museum of Northern Antiquities in Copenhagen, Christian Jurgensen Thomsen (17881865) developed the system of classifying prehistory according to the material evidence of the ages of stone, bronze, and iron, the names by which they are still known. It is significant that the formation of the British Museum (and library) was exactly contemporaneous with the publication of Denis Diderot's great Encyclopédie in France.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries public museums burgeoned throughout Europe and America, and soon in other societies influenced by them, such as South America, Australia, India, and South Africa. This was in response to two considerable and growing pressures: the new urge to collect and codify all material things, and the public's desire to see all these wonders. In those days the interests of the scholar and the general public were consanguineous. Crowds gathered to see the first stuffed kangaroo or dinosaur bone or the latest archaeological discovery from Peru. The field of enquiry that was opening was so vast that collectorsand therefore museumssoon began to specialize, dividing into subject areas such as natural history and geology, archaeology, and ethnology, which continue to define their form to this day.


The main impetus behind the extraordinary growth in museums during the last two centuriesfew cities around the world are now without severalhas been the growing awareness of the importance of public education. The roots of this egalitarian ideal also can be traced back to the Enlightenment, when people such as Diderot believed that knowledge would enable humankind to make the world a better place. His ideas for a national museum were put into practice by the leaders of the French Revolution: in 1792, just nine days after the Bourbon monarchy collapsed, the Louvre, at that time a royal palace, was transformed into a museum with the aim of embracing "knowledge in all its manifold beauty" so that it would, "by embodying these good ideas, worthy of a free people become among the most powerful illustrations of the French Republic." Napoléon Bonaparte was following a time-honored tradition when his armies plundered masterpieces of art from the territories they conquered, particularly in Egypt and Italy, and sent them to the Louvre. (Napoléon was, in this caseat least ostensiblyacting solely in the interests of the people. The Italian treasures were returned after his fall from power.)

Individuals and institutions have, since the earliest times and in almost all cultures, collected rare and precious objects as manifestations of their status. There is archaeological evidence of royal and religious treasuries from ancient civilizations as widespread as Peru, Assyria, Greece, and China. What was new, however, during the Enlightenment, was the idea that these should become public treasuries. The members of the aristocracy of Europe were beginning to allow the general public to visit their collections in the eighteenth century; revolutions merely speeded up the process. The English Civil War, however, had come a century before such ideas had taken hold, and Charles I's extraordinary art collection was simply soldBritain had to create its own National Gallery, from scratch, in 1824. The Hermitage, though still a royal palace, was first opened to the public in 1852, many decades before the Russian Revolution; its collections had been formed as part of Catherine II the Great's (ruled 17621796) strategy to bring education to Russia. The Bolsheviks boosted public collections by giving them religious treasures after religious worship had been outlawed. Many icons are now being returned as the churches reopen following the collapse of the communist regime.

Increasing access to culture dovetailed neatly with the Enlightenment's drive for knowledge. This was the great age of the formation of museums. Its high point, arguably, came in 1846 when James Smithson, a self-effacing English businessman, gave the American government the then celestial sum of half a million dollars to found a museum for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The Smithsonian Institution is now the greatest museum organization in the world, with its many galleries, most of which are ranged along the Mall in Washington, D.C., devoted to interests ranging from art to aerospace and from natural history to ethnography.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the establishment of a museum became not just a response to educational need, but a matter of civic pride. This heady mix of political objectives accounts for the worldwide proliferation of museums at that time, from the Australian Museum in Sydney (opened 1828) to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (1858) to the Museum of the History of China in Beijing (1915), and hundreds of thousands of smaller museums in towns and villages in between.

Museums had another advantage: they attracted tourists. Just as the churches of medieval Europe had competed with each other for relics, so museums sought out the best collectionsfor tourists, like pilgrims, bring income. Many museums in the late twentieth century were established as part of an economic strategy. Glasgow in Scotland was the first postindustrial city to rebuild itself on the back of an art gallery, the Burrell Collection, which opened in 1983. Gradually museum buildings, such as cathedrals, became beacons of attraction in themselves, which led to the extraordinary flowering of museum architecture in the late twentieth century. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank O. Gehry and opened in 1997, is world-famous for its titanium-clad curves, though few could describe its collectionbut then it is not really a museum so much as a temporary exhibition hall, exhibiting works on loan from its parent museum in New York.

Agencies of Influence

It wasn't long before people began to realize that museums could be used to influence people. The South Kensington Museum in London was created in 1857 specifically to encourage better industrial design in Britain. It was radical in that it combined engineering with art, and valued objects from the past purely for their capacity to inspire the present. It is difficult to quantify how effective it wasWilliam Morris's famous wallpaper designs were directly influenced by its collectionsbut the museum gradually lost its motivation and in 1893 was split into the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, thus creating new categories of museums for science and engineering and the decorative arts.

However, the proactive educational spirit sown by the South Kensington Museum became hugely influential. The push-button displays in the Science Museum were the direct inspiration for the Exploratorium in San Francisco, established in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, to help people understand new developments in science. The Exploratorium is not really a museum at allit doesn't have collectionsyet its approach has spawned science centers in almost every major conurbation.

The most radical recent developments in museums have sprung from the desire to educate, rather than to collect. Michael Spock put the old toys in the Boston Children's Museum into storage because he realized his young visitors weren't interested in them. He created a new type of museum in which children could explore the adult world through interactive displays. His methods, particularly his audience participatory programs, have been hugely influential on museums, and new-style children's museums have become almost as widespread as science centers.

Since the 1960s museums have been transformed by the introduction of modern media such as video and film, audio guides, and computers. It is now possible for museums to catch the imagination of a very wide public, but only a few, as yet, have begun to put their visitors first in this way. Most stick to their old, categorical presentations and assume that their visitors will want to learn about microliths, monstrances, and moths, without asking why they might be interested in such things, let alone if they would prefer to find out about something else. When he was commissioned to create what was to become the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv in 1968, Jeshajahu Weinberg, a former theater director, realized that it would not be possible to tell this story using original artifacts, because virtually none existed. He therefore created a display that used no original material at all, only reproductions. But, since it has no collections, it cannot really be categorized as a museum at all.

Weinberg's greatest museum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (opened 1993), uses all the storytelling techniques he developed in Israel together with real exhibits to mesmerizing effect, and attracts two million visitors per year. One reason for the recent proliferation of Holocaust museums (there are twelve in the United States alone in the early 2000s) is that its last living witnesses are being lost. One of the most important roles of museums in the future may be to preserve the evidence of past events, such as the Holocaust, of which it is imperative that they are not forgotten.

Future Challenges

A central issue facing museums in the early twenty-first century is to find ways to use their collections as a means of entertaining and educating a wide public, while developing their role as a resource for research. The felicitous atmosphere of the Enlightenment, when research and public interest coincided, has passed. Museum collections no longer represent, as they did then, the horizon of human understanding. The frontiers of science extend beyond the visible world collectable by museums, and it adds little to the sum of knowledge for museums to go on building up their collections, as most continue to do, according to categories laid down two centuries ago. But objects will still need to be preserved for future study and to make past experiences vividly meaningful to subsequent generations. Museums tend to go on doing what they have always doneadding another Carracci, crustacean, or carand yet there is no museum about the history of communism (apart from a few remaining Soviet propaganda museums, which only tell one side of the story), or of marketing. Both are manifestations of ideas and practices that have vastly shaped the lives of people living in the early 2000s, and both have vivid material pasts, ideal for museum display. The challenge for museums is to decide what is important for them to collect in the presentbecause it is on these collections that their future will be built.

See also Arts ; City, The: The City as a Cultural Center ; Cultural History ; Encyclopedism ; Enlightenment ; Visual Order to Organizing Collections .


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Coombes, Annie E. Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture, and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1994.

Dubin, Steven C. Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation! New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Glaser, Jane R., and Artemis A. Zenetou, eds. Gender Perspectives: Essays on Women in Museums. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Holo, Selma. Beyond the Prado: Museums and Identity in Democratic Spain. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

Holst, Niels von. Creators, Collectors, and Connoisseurs: The Anatomy of Public Taste from Antiquity to the Present Day. London: Thames and Hudson, 1967. Deals only with art collections.

Hudson, Kenneth. Museums of Influence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Malraux, André. Musée imaginaire. Paris: Gallimard, 1965. Translated as Museum Without Walls by Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price. London: Secker and Warburg, 1967.

McClellan, Andrew. Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origin of the Modern Museum in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

McLoughlin, Moira. Museums and the Interpretation of Native Canadians: Negotiating the Borders of Culture. New York: Garland, 1999.

Norman, Geraldine. The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum. London: Pimlico, 1999.

Schneider, Andrea Kupfer. Creating the Musée d'Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Spalding, Julian. The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections. Munich: Prestel, 2002.

Staniszewski, Mary Anne. The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installation at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

Weil, Stephen E. A Cabinet of Curiosities: Inquiries into Museums and their Prospects. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Wilson, David M. The British Museum: A History. London: British Museum Press, 2002.

Julian Spalding

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MUSEUMS. Early modern museums were very different from the modern institutions that bear that name, so much so that some scholars suggest that museums per se did not exist before the eighteenth century. Many museologists believe that the true history of museums begins with the creation of institutions like the British Museum (1753) and the Louvre (1793). What came before the eighteenth century was a chaotic phenomenon, unrelated to the careful, scientific classification and exhibition of the natural and human-crafted world witnessed in modern art galleries and museums of natural history, civilization, and science and technology, among others. It is true that earlier collections lacked some of the basic features of modern institutions. The earliest were privately owned elite institutions not open to the general public. As a group they lacked the orderliness common in collections today, and they were frequently idiosyncratic in composition, focusing on the unusual, shocking, and even disturbing. Even the name "museum" itself was uncommon: it is more correct to refer to cabinets of curiosity (cabinet des curiosités; Kunstkammer) or wonders (Wunderkammer) well into the seventeenth century. But there are good reasons to discount the claims that such cabinets lack any place in the history of museum development.

Perhaps the most obvious reason to challenge the notion of an unbridgeable divide between the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cabinets on one hand and the modern museum on the other is the sheer ubiquity of collecting in the early modern period. This period witnessed an unparalleled upsurge in collecting throughout Europe that continues right through the modern era. It is here that long-standing collections emerge in the Italian peninsula, the Habsburg Empire, Switzerland, France, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Russia, many of which are the foundations of later national museums. Though early modern cabinets were privately ownedoften by a noble, a ruler, or an institution of learningit became increasingly common for their owners to grant admission to worthy guests. These cabinets lured natural historians and philosophers of the age who were striving to understand the workings of nature, but visiting such collections also became part of the educational tour of worthy young men from all over Europe. The demand for access proved so widespread that printed catalogs detailing the contents were created for those who could not visit them in person. Their popularity was enhanced when individuals lower down the social scale began collections in imitation of their social superiors, as they did in increasing numbers during the seventeenth century. It is in the sheer numbers of these collections and the constant traffic to them that some scholars now identify the first glimmers of the modern museum-going public.

The collectors and travelers were undoubtedly experiencing something very different from the modern museum visitor, however. Early collections could easily be described as chaotic because it was often the aim of the owner to encompass universal diversity in his cabinet, and the organization schemes would seem very confusing today. Though there were collectors who specialized in a single type of item, many simply included anything they deemed appealing, intriguing, rare, exotic, or valuable. Collectors might have particular interests, and their cabinets reflect those: the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand II (15291595) had an especial interest in arms and armor and dedicated three rooms of his four-room collection to them; Peter the Great of Russia (16721725) was interested in woodcraft and archaeology, among other things, and kept an extensive collection of tools and archaeological finds from Siberia and the Caspian Sea; England's Samuel Pepys (16331703) gathered printed matter. Other collectors specialized in coins, clocks, shells, biological or anatomical materials, books, or metal objects; the possibilities were as numerous as the collectors themselves.

Though most collections did not rigorously specialize, they did not necessarily lack any organizing impulse. Recent research and examination of individual collections suggests that there were organizational principles at work, though they are not methodologies at use in museums today: Pepys, for instance, organized his immense collection of books by size, not author. One particularly prevalent goal was the desire to create coherence from chaos. The collection of the Royal Society (founded in 1660) was meant, according to its first curator, Robert Hooke (16351703), to provide the opportunity for visitors and scholars to "peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature." Following Francis Bacon's (15611626) proposed program of investigation, the mysteries of nature would be uncovered and explained through the careful examination of, in particular, her "miracles." It was, therefore, incumbent upon collections to focus on the anomalies even to the exclusion of examples of the mundane and regular. Although we can see here an emphasis that is different from modern museums, the explicit agenda certainly foreshadows the type of investigation that underpins modern museum exhibits.

Perhaps the failure to recognize the underlying structure of these collections stems in part from the fact that the cabinets might be very cramped; hundreds of items from various parts of the globe would necessarily be housed in very close proximity, creating a sense of astonishing and exuberant bounty. Whatever organizing principle was employed, the collector would be sure that it accentuated plenitude since the object was to awe (even overawe) the visitor, in the process increasing the collector's reputation and celebrity. In an era when ownership of physical things and consumerism was to become a basis for honor and prestige, the cabinet of rarities was very visible proof of an individual's status.

It is a consequence of the owner's desire for notoriety and eminence that the private cabinet became increasingly more public in the seventeenth century. Though a ruler might wish to defend the exclusivity of his or her personal collection, for the rising merchant, professional, or emergent scholarly group, publicity was desirable. The more visitors, the greater the potential for renown. (Of course, the opening of collections to the general public had the advantage of providing income as well.) Despite this apparently modernizing development, it was the "un-modern" character of the early modern collections that made them so popular; people traveled to see these collections precisely because they were filled with the singular, the anomalous, and the monstrous. When a collector chose to publish a catalog, he did so to highlight the breadth andtheuniqueness of the collection; educating theaudience, while often an important motivator, was usually ancillaryto stunning and amazing it. Museologists argue that it is this reversal of priorities and the lack of "rational" categorization and specialization that make such collections primitive and inferior. And yet for the early modern collector and his audience, such collections were the means to encapsulating and understanding a fecund and ingenious nature; without such collections and the study they enabled, nature's constitution, methods, and limits would remain shrouded in mystery.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Hooke, Robert ; Marvels and Wonders ; Natural History ; Pepys, Samuel .


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Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, 1994.

Impey, Oliver, and Arthur MacGregor, eds. The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Oxford and New York, 1985.

Swann, Marjorie. Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England. Philadelphia, 2001.

Kathryn Brammall

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museums. The foundation of museums was an offshoot of the great explosion of knowledge in the early modern period which stemmed from the invention of printing, the voyages of discovery, the new interest in the classical world, and the increase in literacy, and it forms part of the Enlightenment. It is the counterpart of the attempt to classify and explain phenomena which stimulated the publication of encyclopedias and dictionaries, and for years the term museum was used to signify a study or library.

It was not unusual for 16th-cent. rulers to have collections, often of a miscellaneous character, partly because they exchanged so many gifts. In Britain the royal family rarely took the lead, but a number of private citizens were avid collectors. Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631) concentrated largely on manuscripts but also collected coins and fossils. Sir Walter Cope, his contemporary, had an Indian canoe, an Egyptian mummy, and an African necklace made of teeth. John Tradescant opened his ‘Ark’ at Lambeth, charging sixpence admission, and his son published a catalogue of the curiosities in 1656, claiming a dodo and many non-European plants. A rival commercial collection was Robert Hubert's, near St Paul's, who claimed ‘thousands of other rarities of nature’. This collection, though primarily a museum of oddities, was purchased by the Royal Society, which could not look after it and eventually gave it to the British Museum. Museums long retained their quirky and unusual character and Johnson defined them in the 1750s as ‘repositories of learned curiosities’. Tradescant junior bequeathed his collection to Elias Ashmole, who left it to Oxford University. The Ashmolean Museum opened in 1683 in what is now the Museum of the History of Science, and the general public was admitted on payment. The Balfour collection in Scotland, handed over in 1697 to the University of Edinburgh had a less happy fate, and was neglected and dispersed.

The change from private cabinets to public museums, initiated by the Ashmolean, was continued in 1753 by the foundation of the British Museum. Sir Hans Sloane (d. 1753) had a collection of more than 100,000 specimens, many of them plants from the West Indies, which he had visited. He left it to the nation, and the new museum, supported by a lottery, also incorporated the Harleian and Cottonian collections. Although the public was admitted, it was on a very restricted scale, and the principal librarian in the 19th cent. defended Saturday and Sunday closing on the grounds that it kept out ‘sailors and girls whom they might bring with them’.

A great increase in museums, national and provincial, followed. The National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland was founded in 1780, the Royal Scottish Museum in 1854, the two amalgamating in 1985. The Ulster Museum began in 1831, becoming the national museum in 1961. The National Museum of Wales opened in 1907. The Victoria and Albert Museum (1852) and the Science Museum at South Kensington were part of a great complex triggered by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Most of the national museums have branches: the Science Museum runs the railway museum at York and the Museum of Photography, Film, and TV at Bradford. In addition to the great national museums, municipal museums were founded, assisted by friendly legislation: an Act for encouraging the establishment of museums in large towns (1845) permitted the raising of a halfpenny rate. The Liverpool Museum opened in 1851, the Birmingham Museum in 1885. In the 20th cent. the emphasis was on specialist collections—the National Maritime Museum (1934), the Royal Air Force Museum (1963), and a host of smaller museums devoted to motor cycles, trams, cider, musical instruments, costume, and teddy bears. Museum complexes such as the Ironbridge Trust at Coalbrookdale and open-air museums like Beamish in Co. Durham have proved very successful. After 1945 there was a determined effort to make museums less forbidding, to remove the glass cases and drawers, and to use displays, films, and hands-on working models. Many villages have their own splendidly idiosyncratic local collections, even if they are housed in huts and open only on Tuesday afternoons.

J. A. Cannon

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museum † building devoted to learning and the arts (regarded as ‘a home of the Muses’); building for exhibition of objects of art or science (first applied to ‘ Mr. Ashmole's Museum at Oxford’). XVII. — L. mūsēum library, study — Gr. mouseîon seat of the Muses, sb. use of n. of mouseîos, f. moûsa MUSE2.

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mu·se·um / myoōˈzēəm/ • n. a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.

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museum •um •Graeme, graham •athenaeum, atheneum, coliseum, Liam, lyceum, mausoleum, museum, peritoneum, propylaeum, Te Deum •Rijksmuseum

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