Museum, permanent nonprofit institution housing collections of objects of artistic, historic, or scientific interest, conserved and displayed for the edification and enjoyment of the public.

Similar definitions of the nature and purposes of a museum have been propounded by some of the organizations that today guide the policies and work of museums throughout the world—the American Association of Museums (founded in 1906), the Canadian Museums Association/Association des Musйes Canadiens (1947), the British Museums Association (1889), and the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Founded in 1947, ICOM is an independent professional organization that provides a forum for more than 7000 members in 119 countries through its committees, publications, and activities. Working closely with UNESCO and other world organizations, its mission is to develop new museums and to forge links between existing ones through the national governing committees that are responsible to the parent body. A general meeting of ICOM is held in a different country every three years, and some 20 international committees meet in the intervening years.

History of Museums

Museum is a Latin word, derived from the Greek mouseion, originally meaning a temple dedicated to the nine Muses. Not until the Renaissance was the term applied to a collection of objects of beauty and worth.

Ancient World

The first mouseion, founded about 290 BC in Alexandria, Egypt, by Ptolemy I Soter, was a state-supported community of scholars. The community included apartments, a dining hall, lecture hall, cloister, botanical garden, zoological park, astronomical observatory, and library. Objects such as surgical and astronomical instruments, animal hides, elephant tusks, statues, and portrait busts were also housed there and used for teaching. The museum and most of its were destroyed about AD 270 during civil disturbances.

The temples of ancient Greece were filled with statues, vases, paintings, and ornaments in bronze, gold, and silver, dedicated to the gods; some of these works were displayed for the public to see and enjoy. So, too, works of art could be seen in the temples of ancient Rome, as well as in the forums, gardens, baths, and theaters. In the villas of generals and statesmen, works of art and booty captured in wars were displayed for private enjoyment. The emperor Hadrian even went so far as to reconstruct in his villa some of the famous sites and buildings he had seen in Greece and Egypt. Hadrian's villa, in fact, may be considered a precursor of today's open-air museums.


Before AD 1000 royal collections of art objects were preserved in palaces and temples in China and Japan. Of particular note is the still functioning Shoso-in, part of a temple complex in the city of Nara, housing several thousand works of art and religious artifacts.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the churches and monasteries of Europe became repositories for jewels, statues, manuscripts, and saints' relics. Beginning in the 7th century, spoils of the Crusades were added to these repositories. Occasionally displayed, the jewels and gold also served as a reserve to be pawned in time of war. For example, the treasury of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims was enlarged or depleted according to France's fortunes in battle.

Galleries” and “Cabinets.”

In the 16th century it became customary to display sculpture and easel paintings in the long halls, or galleries, of palaces and the residences of the wealthy. Thus began the use of the term gallery for a place where works of art are hung or arranged for viewing. Collections of smaller art objects or of natural curiosities were housed in a cabinet (Italian gabinetto; German Kabinett—all derived from Latin cavea, “a hollow place” or “cave”). Originally a piece of furniture where small valuables were stored for safekeeping, the cabinet was later extended in use and meaning to designate a small room where such things were kept. The first cabinets were formed in Italy, spreading to the north in the 17th century; they became widespread throughout Europe with trade and economic prosperity in the 18th century. Occasionally, distinguished travelers were allowed to visit these private cabinets; gradually, in the 17th and 18th centuries they were opened to the public.

The First Modern Museums

Museums as they are known today were first established in Europe in the 18th century. In 1750 the French government began to admit members of the public, mostly artists and students, two days a week, to see some 100 pictures hung in the Luxembourg Palace, Paris; this collection was later transferred to the Louvre. The Louvre, which had its beginnings in the royal collections of the 16th-century king Francis I, became, during the time of the French Revolution, the first great public art museum; it opened its doors in 1793. The British Museum in London was founded as a public institution in 1753, but prospective visitors had to apply in writing for admission. Even by 1800 it was possible to have to wait two weeks for an admission ticket; visitors, in small groups, were limited to stays of two hours.

Among other museums founded in the Age of Enlightenment were the National Museum in Naples (1738); the Uffizi in Florence (1743); the Museo Sacro (1756) and the Museo Pio Clementino (1770-74), parts of the Vatican Museum complex; and the National Science Museum in Madrid (1771). Royal collections were opened to public view in Vienna (1700), Dresden, Germany (1746), and at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (1765).

Even before the American Revolution, museums were founded in the colonies by private citizens. The Charleston Museum, in Charleston, South Carolina (1773), devoted to the natural history of the region, is an example of the more than 60 cabinets, galleries, and historical societies established from that date up to about 1850. Some, although popular with the public, did not last—like the museums founded in Philadelphia by the Swiss-born artist and antiquary Pierre Eugиne Du Simitiиre in 1782 and by the American artist Charles Willson Peale in 1786. Du Simitiиre was especially concerned with the documentation of the American Revolution. Other institutions, however, remain to the present day—for example, the Massachusetts Historical Society, in Boston (1791); the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (1846); and the first historic-house museum, Washington's headquarters in Newburgh, New York (opened in 1850).

Special Museums

Relatively early in the history of modern museums, special types began to be organized.

University Museums

The first museum concerned with a university was established at Basel, Switzerland, in 1671. The Ashmolean Museum (1663), part of the University of Oxford, England, was the first institution in Western Europe to call itself a museum. In America, Harvard College (now University) established a room of “curiosities” in 1750; it later evolved into the University Museum. The first college art museum in the United States was the Trumbull Gallery (1832) at Yale College, now the Yale Gallery of Fine Arts. At present, the more than 150 university and college art museums in the U.S. comprise about one-third of all art museums in the nation.

Art Museums

In the northeastern U.S. the late 19th century was a period of rapid proliferation of museums and the emergence of art museums, in particular, as important and distinct institutions. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City were both founded in 1870, the Pennsylvania Museum (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art) in 1877, and the Brooklyn Museum in 1893. By the latter part of the 20th century, however, population shifts and the development of new centers of wealth and culture were reflected in the number of important art museums established in the South and the West.

Modern art museums generally house far more than paintings and sculpture. Prints and drawings in every medium are also shown, as are the decorative arts. Folk art, on the other hand, is sometimes found in ethnic, crafts, or historical museums. Indigenous art of non-Western peoples may also be found in many art museums today (as in the Brooklyn Museum and the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), as well as in museums specifically devoted to anthropology or natural history.

History Museums

Museums devoted to national, regional, or local history include conventional museum buildings as well as historic houses, sites, and districts. Outdoor complexes may incorporate whole buildings, such as barns, churches, workshops, and mills. This type of “living” museum of folk culture, ethnography, and social history developed in Scandinavia at the end of the 19th century. Today such institutions are very popular in the U.S. and may be found in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Canada as well.

Science Museums

Among important natural history museums founded in the late 19th century are the American Museum of Natural History (1869), in New York City, and the Natural History Museum in London (1881-85), now part of the British Museum. Anthropology museums of distinction include the National Museum of Ethnology (1837), in Leiden; the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania (1889), in Philadelphia; the Musйe de l'Homme (1939), in Paris; and the National Museum of Anthropology (1964), in Mexico City. Science museums also include institutions devoted to industry and technology, such as the National Air and Space Museum (1976) in Washington, D.C., an addition to the Smithsonian's complex, and the City of Science and Industry (1986) in Paris. Often science museums include aquariums, planetariums, zoological parks, and botanical gardens.