All museums can be said to have a common origin in certain institutions that began many centuries ago. Whether identifying when a historic event took place, when a species became extinct, or when an art form was popular, museums share a common theme that underlies their particular mission: namely, understanding changes to human, animal, plant, and inorganic artifacts that occurred through time.
The development of museums occurred over millennia, with the first museums originating in Old World nations nearly 2,300 years ago. The earliest forms, such as the Mouseion of Alexandria (Egypt), were sanctuaries that housed a multitude of collections, including gardens with diverse plant species, remains of unique and common animal species, technological innovations, and miscellaneous writings. These institutions also served as centers for discourse between scholars who sought to unravel intellectual puzzles and educate others. Additional museumlike institutions existed in areas of Asia, Africa, and Europe, but many were simply private gatherings of antiquities, far removed from the complex structure of the museums of today and from the view of the general populace.
Private collections remained a major source of collected antiquities until the spoils of war and discoveries of New World voyages, gathered by explorers and military commanders, made their way to Europe to be housed and displayed in museums developed to serve national interests during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. These institutions, developed as part of universities and as individual establishments, included the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London and established the practice of exhibiting botanical, zoological, library, art, and other miscellaneous collections. American museums originated during the 18th and 19th centuries, focusing chiefly on natural and local history. By the early 20th century, these institutions were often supported by funds and collections provided by patrons who traveled the world and then donated antiquities they collected in their travels, including religious paraphernalia, paintings, sculptures, coinage, human remains, and ancient weaponry. Some of the unique items brought to the United States during this time included mummies from Egypt, coins of the Roman Empire, Japanese katanas, and paintings created by some of the world’s most celebrated artists.
In the mid-20th century, museums collectively started to receive new sources of funding, such as grants from government and private endowments, and began to expand their missions to include more systematic exploration of their own existing collections. While a number of museums had devoted efforts to understanding collections throughout history, it was during the 20th century that a widespread reevaluation and modification of museums’ research activities took place. These activities led to a deeper commitment to understanding the development of humanity and specific societies through time as well as an analysis of emerging technologies. It is to all these predecessors that contemporary museums owe their existence, public support, and direction.
Each type of museum has different temporal concentrations integrated into their missions and, consequently, their collections. History museums and historical societies are among the prevalent museum types found today and have one of the most uncomplicated focuses on time. Although history museums and historical societies exist that have a world focus in their mission, most museums of this kind concentrate their collection, research, and exhibit practices on their own locality, whether it be a town, city, state, or province. These institutions seek to acquire artifacts and oral history documenting the history of their respective regions, often collecting materials connected to events or people that significantly influenced the course of that society’s history. In recent years, history museums and historical societies have placed particular importance on exhibiting the genealogy of families that most affected a region’s history and materials documenting the contributions to the society of different ethnic populations through time.
Art museums, meanwhile, concentrate on the collection of works including paintings, sculptures, and print media that document the different historical styles of art. The foci of exhibits in such institutions may be on art techniques (e.g., Cubism or Impressionism), individual artists (e.g., Michelangelo or Picasso), or regions (e.g., Native American art of the Southwest). Whatever the art form highlighted, exhibits usually emphasize time, whether it be the duration of popularity of an art technique or the life of an influential artist.
Science museums and centers place emphasis on innovative technologies while also exploring scientific discoveries, particularly through the fields of archaeology, astronomy, paleontology, and zoology. Science museums and centers place a special focus on the emergence and evolution of individual animal and plant species, animal orders, planetary bodies, and the universe itself. In regard to technological advances, science museums often assess specific technologies and their impact on society, examining what technologies such innovations replaced, and industry progress through time.
Natural history museums are primarily concerned with organisms and their development over time. Such institutions vary in their exhibits, collections, and research goals, which may include understanding and illustrating life forms both in stasis and within an evolutionary context.
Ultimately, all kinds of museums—whether a history museum collecting art created by local artists, a natural history museum displaying watercolor renderings of birds, or a science museum exploring the evolution of dinosaurs through a virtual exhibit—share common collection goals. Museums also show a tendency to amass artifacts or whole collections outside their mandates. That said, all museums place an emphasis on time in their own research, within their exhibit designs, and when educating visitors to their institutions.
Neil Patrick O’Donnell
See also Anthropology; Archaeology; Egypt, Ancient;
Fossils and Artifacts; Hammurabi, Codex of;
Mummies; Observatories; Planetariums; Rome, Ancient; Rosetta Stone
Alexander, E. P. (1996). Museums in motion: An introduction to the history and functions of museums. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.
Burkholder, J. (2006). Museums. In H. J. Birx (Ed.), The encyclopedia of anthropology (Vol. 4, pp. 1647-1650). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Trigger, B. G. (1993). A history of archaeological thought. Cambridge, UK: University Press.