Museums: The Incomplete Picture

Museums have been a part of human history for over 2000 years but they weren’t always like the moderns ones we visited today. They are referred to as institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical or scientific importance. Historically, the word museum comes from the ancient Greek word “mouseion” which denotes a place or temple dedicated to the muses. The muses were the patron divinities in Greek mythology of the arts and hence a mouseion was a building set apart for study and the arts. The first museum is considered to be the one of Plato in Athens.

Early museums began as the personal collections of affluent individuals, families or institutions of art and uncommon or curious natural objects and artifacts. There were often displayed in so called wonder rooms or cabinet of curiosities. The Ennigaldi Nanna’s museum is the oldest of such museum dating back to 530 BC and it was devoted to Mesopotamian antiquities. Public access to these museums was often possible for the respectable especially to private art collection but it was always at the detriment of the owner.

One of the ways in which elite men of this period gained a higher social status was by becoming art collectors of these curious objects and displaying them. Many of these items were new discoveries and since theses collectors had interest in natural science, they were eager to obtain them. These collectors used their museum as a way to manage the empirical explosion of materials that means such as wider dissemination of ancient text, increased voyages of discoveries and more systematic forms of communication had produced.

The 18th century scholars of the age of enlightenment saw their ideas of the museum as superior and based their natural history museums on organization and taxonomy. The oldest public collection of art; the Capitoline museums began in 1471 when pope Sixtus IV donated a group of important ancient sculpture to the people of Rome. The Vatican museums followed suit as the second oldest museum and it origins can be traced back to the public display of sculptural collection in 1506. The oldest museum in London, the Royal Armouries in the tower of London was opened to the public in 1660.

The list continues to the botanical museum built in Ambon in 1662 by Rumphus. Although, nothing remains of this museum which used to be the oldest in Indonesia but it was succeeded by the Batavia society of art and science which was established in 1778. Most notable museums in the world like the British museum in London, the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy; the hermitage museum in Russia, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain; the Louvre museum in Paris, France and the Charles Wilson Peale were all established in the 18th century. The oldest museum in India, the Indian museum in Kolkata was established in 1814 and house over one million collections of artifacts.

Modern museum first emerged in Western Europe, and then spreading into other parts of the world. The first public museums like the British museum which opened in 1759 were only accessible by the middle and upper class. There were initial concerns that large crowd could damage the artifacts so prospective visitors had to apply in writing for admission and only were small groups were allowed into the galleries each day. Artifacts were collected when collectors paid initial owners or as loot from victories of war like Napoleon I did.

Museums serve the function of keeping artifacts and preserving the material evidence of the human race, human activity and the natural world. They are also used by the government for different purpose such as economic drivers through tourist attraction. In recent years, some cities have turned to museums as an avenue for economic development or rejuvenation. While some museums have solved these political and economic problems, others have failed and ended in disappointment.