The History of Museums

From the first childhood visit to a museum with parents or classmates, we see items from faraway lands and times that make our human history real and immediate. More than 850 million people visit museums annually, so let’s take a look at the history of museums.

Mesopotamia of 530 B.C. contained the first recorded museum, that of Ennigaldi-Nanna. A building set apart for study and the arts at first blended with the notion of a library, and the most notable library of the ancient world was in Alexandria, Egypt. From then on, museums created by the wealthy preserved historical artifacts for family members, at first, and then the public. Ulisse Aldrovandi in 16th century Italy provided the basic principle of a collection, which is gathering everything of interest for display in random order. This notion gave way later to specialization regarding art museums, natural history museums, and so forth.

When democratic America rose to prominence on the world stage, Charles Willson Peale’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Philadelphia is cited from its opening in 1786 as being one of the first public museums. Since he was both a painter and a collector, he supplied its walls with his own portraits of George Washington and also displayed the unearthed bones of a wooly mammoth.

As the 19th century progressed, industry funded wealthy entrepreneurs with enough capital to establish idiosyncratic storehouses of their passions. For instance, in London, the prominent architect, Sir John Soanes, accumulated antiquities and the copies of his own blueprints that needed room to be preserved. His cluster of homes, which he considered a ‘living laboratory,’ which he tinkered with constantly, stand today as they were in his time per a Private Act of Parliament. Soanes was iconoclastic in his style of conserving space for his thousands of displays, and the paintings, for example, hang from the ground floor to the three-story high level in the main gallery. The centerpiece of his collection is the sarcophagus of Seti I, in which there is limited admission of 70 people at one time.

From the individual’s caprice to the measured judgment of a museum board, decisions on what to display and what to shelve remain ongoing. For instance, P.T. Barnum’s museum bordered on the freak show and yet retained high popularity and consequent financial success. Modern museums strive to deliver a hands-on experience that engages the public, satisfies curiosity, and yet preserves the artifacts for future generations. The history of museums will not end with online museums, IMAX presentations, and wine tastings among the elite at private midnight showings. The Louvre and the Smithsonian alike look to the future.

Museums remain critical in the education of youth and the edification of adults. There is nothing quite like admiring a Picasso with others or enjoying thrills along with your children from the preserved raptor skeleton poised to attack. Take a moment to savor the memory of that first visit to a museum, and admire the expertise of museum innovators through the ages.