The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

The History of Museums

British Museum, King's Library - geograph.org.uk - 1156714

The word “museum” has classical Greek origins. It meant “seat of the Muses” and was used to identify a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation. The Greek form was “mouseion” and it was translated into the Latin form, “museum”. “Museum” was used in Roman times to nominate places of philosophical discussion or a building devoted to learning or the arts. By the 1600’s, the term “museum” was being used in Europe to describe “collections of curiosities”.

The earliest use of the word “Museum” in English was in reference to institutions such as libraries, for example the British Museum, where objects were displayed and the term started being recorded in writing during the 1680s.

The dictionary definition for a museum is that it is a place or building where objects of historical, artistic or scientific interest are exhibited, preserved and studied.

The modern museum can trace its origins to private collections established by wealthy individuals during the Renaissance. Prominent figures such as the Catholic Popes in the Vatican accelerated the interest in antiquities and art masterpieces and National leaders such as Kings followed the practice. These collections were symbols of power and prestige, however in time, a spirit of inquiry led to a different purpose and a much wider participation, not necessarily limited to religious or national rulers and leaders.

These new collectors were mainly focused on the study and advancement of knowledge. Essential to that focus was the education of the general public and institutes were established with this aim, as their public mission. As the prestige of these institutions increased, private collections found their way into public or corporate institutions which provided greater security and accessibility.

The first institution to be granted a significant private collection was the University of Oxford. The conditions of the gift included that a suitable place be built to receive it. Thus the Ashmolean Museum, opened in 1683, based on Elias Ashmole private collection. The Ashmolean Museum later relocated to another building (as seen below) near the University of Oxford, and the original 1683 building is now occupied by the Museum of the History of Science, at the University of Oxford.

Ashmolean Museum Entrance and Forecourt 2015

Soon after the British Museum was established in 1759 as a public institution and then the Louvre in 1793. Further details of the histories of on both of these and other historic museums can be found on this site:

Today, the purpose of Museums vary from institution to institution. Some focus on education and academic study others on conservation and others on commercial endeavours.

There are many different types of museums. Some of the categories of Museums include:

  • History museums
  • Art museum (or art gallery)
  • General museums or multidisciplinary museums
  • Natural history and natural science museums
  • Museums of science and technology

Museums are dedicated to preserving and interpreting objects created by humans or the environment. As such, they a visited in the hope of finding meaning.

With the increasing interest in museums, we are seeing an explosion of specialist of niche museums. Below is a short list of some of my favourite specialist museums:

  • Aerospace museums‎
  • Anthropology museums‎
  • Archaeological museums‎
  • Automobile museums‎
  • Bank museums‎
  • Ceramics museums‎
  • City museums‎
  • Dinosaur museums‎
  • Fossil museums‎
  • Geology museums‎
  • Historic house museums‎
  • Lighthouse museums
  • Military and war museums‎
  • Medical museums
  • National museums‎
  • Performing arts museums‎
  • Postal museums‎
  • Prison museums‎
  • Religious museums‎
  • Museum ships‎
  • Technology museums‎
  • University museums‎
  • Wax museums‎
  • War museums or memorial (picture below)
  • Zoology museums‎

Australian War Memorial HDR (3205312849)
More details on some of the most popular museums can be found at:

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“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell

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Photo Credit: 1)  Oxyman [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Sarah Casey (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Sam from Canberra, Australia (Australian War MemorialUploaded by Parkes) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons