A museum is an institution or building which houses, curates, conserves and exhibits a collection of objects which is open to the public. These collections may feature items of historical, cultural, artistic or scientific importance, usually categorised and organised for display purposes. Many museums are considered both tourist attractions and centres for academic study. Some also have associated research institutes, which are frequently involved with studies related to the museum's items.
Museums are not determined by size or status, and any building housing a collection which is open to public viewing can be termed a museum. The UK Museums Association’s definition states:
"Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society".
Larger museums often feature different departments dealing with different areas, whereas smaller museums may be focused on a single subject matter. They can contain permanent exhibits, featuring items owned by the museum, along with temporary exhibits featuring items loaned from other museums and institutions.
Museums acquire items for their collections in a number of different ways. Many are bought at auction, whilst others are donated from private collections, and some are traded with other museums. Larger museums have dedicated acquisition departments, which focus on finding new pieces for their collections.
Museums developed from the large private collections of items owned by members of the wealthy classes, which began to appear during the renaissance period.
The era brought with it a new-found spirit of innovation, which led to great voyages and the discovery of new worlds and cultures.
Many voyagers brought back with them strange cultural artefacts, religious relics, archaeological specimens and new botanical and biological oddities.
It became fashionable for wealthy men to collect these mysterious objects and display them in what was known as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. This could mean a literal cabinet or a special room in which the collections were housed, alongside the patron’s newly-collected artworks, ancient books and intriguing mechanical devices.
Some of the greatest collections were held by the monarchs such as Peter the Great, Frederick III of Denmark, Ferdinand II of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.
Others were gathered by philosophers and scholars for the purpose of study, and this spirit of rational enquiry lead to the more scientific view of the world which had begun to develop.
In 1565 Samuel von Quiccheberg published a work on the nature of collections, stating that they represented a systematic classification of all materials in the universe.
The purpose of these collections shifted from being symbols of social prestige owned by royalty to subjects of scientific study collected by learned men. Many felt that knowledge of any lasting significance should be given to the world and placed in the public domain.
This notion led, in 1683, to the opening of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, the first of its kind.
The noted collector Elias Ashmole decided to donate his collection to the University of Oxford on the condition that a building was erected to house it correctly and that it would be available for public viewing.
The collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, and zoological specimens including the moth-eaten body of Europe’s last Dodo.
As the age of enlightenment dawned in the 18th century, some of the world’s greatest museums were built to house large donated collections.
In 1759 the British Museum was opened containing the important collections of Sir Robert Cotton, Robert Harley and Sir Hans Sloane, which the British government had decided to preserve for the benefit of the public.
Although entry to the museum could only be booked in advance, and the number of tickets was limited, it was from its opening day entirely free of charge.
In 1793 the Louvre opened in Paris, housing the French royal art collection (despite the fact it was opened by the Revolutionary government).
By 1801 the museum was fully accessible to the public, and Napoleon Bonaparte filled the Louvre with looted treasures from his campaigns across Europe.
The Congress of Vienna in 1815 demanded the looted material be returned, but even without these treasures the Louvre had captured the public imagination in France.
The 19th century saw museums opening around the world, as countries sought to both establish themselves in the age of modern scientific thought and preserve some of their cultural heritage.
Museums began to play a large role in the consciousness of national identity throughout Europe. In 1851 the Great Exhibition in London produced the founding collections of both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum, and in 1852 tsar Nicholas I displayed the Russian royal collection in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg for the first time.
The interest in antiquities also led to a boom in archaeological studies, and new museums sprung up to house the items discovered.
In 1846 the Smithsonian Institution was formed in the United States, funded by a bequest of half a million dollars from the British scientist James Smithson.
He had donated the money in his will to create an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men", and it soon became the home of many notable donated collections as well as various government collections.
Today the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world, housing over 136 million items.
The later years of the 19th century also saw the opening of many notable museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened in 1870.
In Canada the National Museum was founded at Montreal in 1843, in Australia the National Museum of Victoria was established at Melbourne in 1854, and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo was established in 1858.
By the early 20th century museums had opened across Africa, including the national museums of Zimbabwe in 1901, the Uganda Museum in 1908 and the National Museum of Kenya in 1909.
China’s first museum, the Nan-t'ung Museum in Kiangsu province, was founded in 1905 and was quickly followed by the Museum of the History of China in Beijing.
The latter half of the 20th century saw many museums become popular tourist attractions, as the focus of many exhibits shifted from the purely educational to a more entertaining style.
Some museums (particularly science museums) developed displays with which the public could interact, as static displays of equipment were replaced with working demonstrations of their uses.
Today museums are seen as popular destinations that generate large contributions to national economies, as well as scientific and historical institutions charged with the preservation of cultural treasures.
The world’s largest museum
The largest museum in the world, based on the statistics of building size and number of exhibits, is the Smithsonian Institute complex in Washington D.C. It comprises 19 museums and nine research centres, as well as the National Zoological Park, and contains close to 137 million objects, artworks and specimens.
The world’s oldest museum
The oldest museum in existence is the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, which first opened to the public in 1683.
It was founded on the collection of Elias Ashmole, who donated his collection to the University of Oxford in 1677. It contains huge collections of archaeological specimens and fine art, including some of the finest collections of pre-Raphaelite paintings, majolica pottery and English silver.
It also houses an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities, along with Greek and Minoan pottery.
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