The term “museum” is applied to a broad variety of cultural institutions, ranging from the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The best museums in the world beckon visitors to discover new cultures and topics through carefully curated collections and transcending exhibitions. They also offer a space to ponder the big questions that face society and the human experience. Museums are an incredibly powerful force for good, and they deserve to be more widely embraced.
Merriam-Webster defines a museum as “an institution that acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment.” Museums are typically not for profit and are open to the public. They also often have a director, who is responsible for collecting and caring for the collection as well as arranging it for display. Larger museums also often have a separate research division, which studies the items in their care, and an education department, which teaches about the museum’s collection to the general public.
Most museums are primarily concerned with preserving and interpreting the primary tangible evidence of humanity’s past, though they can be used for other purposes, including recreational facilities; as educational resources; to promote civic pride or nationalism; to encourage tourism; and even to transmit overtly ideological concepts. Some museums have a clear focus on displaying historical objects while others are based on thematic interpretation.
Some museums are dedicated to a single person or event, such as the Alamo in San Antonio or the Giddings Stone Mansion in Brenham, Texas. Some museums are dedicated to a specific location, such as the Parthenon in Athens or the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Other museums, such as the Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem, are designed to be a place of mourning and reflection for people of any faith or background.
While some museums are famous for their art displays, many are also known for their architecture or other specialized attractions. For example, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, is famed for its incredible array of medieval and Renaissance art, but it is equally renowned for its simple, light-filled architectural design that allows the stunning statues and vases to stand out.
There are so many ways to categorize museums, but one thing is certain—the best ones tell a compelling story through their collection and exhibitions. These institutions should be considered essential to the cultural life of our societies and are often visited for their beauty as well as for their knowledge and inspiration. They can make us more tolerant and accepting of the diversity of our world and our shared heritage. It’s time to rethink those who are quick to dismiss the value of museums.