Museums collect and care for objects of scientific, artistic, cultural or historical significance, and make them available to the public for viewing through exhibits. They are usually run by a director, with a staff of curators who research the items and prepare them for display, as well as an education department responsible for providing interpretation to visitors. In addition, many museums have a research institute or division dedicated to conducting original research related to their collections.
The word museum comes from the Greek word mouseion, meaning “seat of the Muses.” It was originally used to refer to a place where arts and learning were cultivated. By the 18th century, it had evolved to mean a repository of treasured artifacts. The first modern museum was the British Museum, established by Act of Parliament in 1753. Its purpose was to collect, preserve and make accessible to the general public a “comprehensive collection of specimens of antiquity.” In 1816, Denis Diderot outlined his blueprint for a national museum in the ninth volume of the Encyclopedie.
Museums are a form of cultural heritage institutions, and are mainly considered to be non-profit, educational establishments with tax exempt status. Depending on the country, museums are typically overseen by a government agency or an independent board of trustees. In the United States, for example, museums are regulated by the National Park Service and the United States Department of Education.
There are a wide variety of museums worldwide, ranging from large collections in major cities to small museums in rural or remote areas. Typical categories include fine arts, archaeology, anthropology and ethnology, history, military history, natural history, science and technology, children’s museums, botanical gardens and zoological parks. Within each of these categories, museums may further specialize in specific subjects such as a single artist, a certain period of time or an area of geography.
Most museums have a permanent collection, which is the core of their identity, and a series of temporary exhibitions that change regularly. The Louvre in Paris is one of the largest museums in the world, with a collection that spans over 7,800,000 square feet. Museums also hold lectures, educational programs and other events for their visitors.
While there are some museums that have a more neutral or academic approach to their collections and exhibits, others have political or social agendas. These political or social agendas can be driven by a desire to educate and uplift, or by the need to create a sense of belonging and identity for those who visit the museum.
While museums have a long history of building and maintaining their reputations, the current climate has made it difficult for them to keep that up. In the future, they must refocus their strategies to meet the needs of their communities in new ways. Museums can serve as a model for other institutions by being authentic to their missions, and by providing value that is hard to find elsewhere. By doing so, they can maintain their stellar reputations and continue to inspire their audiences in the ways they always have.