A museum is much more than a building full of old stuff. It is a place where the history of human culture is kept and made accessible to the public. In addition to housing important collections, museums also provide educational programs and support scientific research in their fields. They are not only keepers of the past but often serve as catalysts for cultural change in their communities.
The concept of the museum is ancient, dating back to votive offerings held in temples or palaces, as well as to the fanciful accumulations of natural and cultural curiosities that were commonplace in Renaissance courts. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that museums became widely established in urban centers to serve as cultural centers.
Museums can be hushed halls that emanate a musty smell or noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. They can feature revered works of art and collections of living insects or be the home of one of the world’s greatest treasure troves, like the Louvre in Paris, with its eight million artifacts from across the globe.
Today there are more than 500 million objects housed in 5,000 museums worldwide. The museums are spread over the entire globe and devoted to a wide range of subjects, such as art, science, history, archeology and religion. They are also a source of inspiration and recreation for many people.
Many museums have a permanent collection that is available for viewing throughout the year. A museum’s website usually has a page dedicated to this collection, with images and descriptions of selected or the entire artwork. Some museums have a section devoted to a specific type of art or an entire room dedicated to a particular artist or movement. The museum’s website may also include a section explaining the origin and history of its collection, including its provenance (the history of ownership).
In addition to their permanent collections, most museums have special exhibitions that are only available for a limited time. These can be shown in the museum’s gallery or at other venues, and they are often called temporary exhibitions. Some museums collaborate with other institutions to create traveling exhibits that are displayed in a number of different cities.
The new definition of a museum by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) stresses the importance of the social role of museums, and introduces the notion that museums “hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society.” It is not just for education and enjoyment but to make the world’s cultural heritage available to all.
In the future, museums will continue to evolve, expanding their responsibilities and reaching into new areas. They will become increasingly diverse, embracing contemporary issues such as globalization, decolonization and repatriation. They will expand their role as mediators between cultures, allowing them to become places of dialogue rather than of division. Museums will also have to adjust to new economic pressures, and the challenge will be to find ways to do this while still retaining their essential values.