A museum is an institution that collects, cares for and exhibits objects of scientific, artistic or historical interest. These museums may be large or small, and are often located in major cities, but they also exist in more local areas.
The word museum comes from the Greek mouseion, a place or temple dedicated to the Muses, and is thought to be the origin of the English phrase “museum.” It is not clear, however, when the term first emerged, but it probably did not begin to develop until after the time of the Ptolemies.
In Europe the museum was not, however, the name of a single place; collections were scattered throughout the country and the world, and the task of collecting them and arranging them for public viewing took on a life of its own. During the 17th century Ole Worm’s collection in Copenhagen was referred to as the “Museum of Curiosities,” and in England John Tradescant’s array in Lambeth was called the “Museum of Wonders.”
When Napoleon I conquered the great cities of Europe, he confiscated art objects from their owners and put them on display, and a new name for the institution came into use. This idea of the museum as a vehicle for nationalistic fervor influenced the concept of the museum worldwide and shaped how it was practiced.
Today, a museum is a not-for-profit organization that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage for the benefit of society. Its mission is to operate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities.
Most museums have a curatorial staff responsible for the care of their collections and for arranging exhibits to present the items in ways that allow visitors to see and learn about them. This team is typically supervised by the museum’s director and reports to a board of trustees or governmental department.
Depending on the size and importance of the museum, the curatorial staff may also include a research division, which is often engaged in studying and interpreting the items in the museum’s possession. Many museums also have a teaching or education department that is responsible for giving public interpretations of the museum’s collections, such as lectures and other programs.
Some museums, especially those with larger and more important collections, have an “Acquisitions Department” that is responsible for acquiring objects that are of scientific, artistic or historical value. Some of these collections are purchased or traded, while others come from donations or bequests.
Other objects may be acquired by a variety of means, including expeditions organized by the museum or associated institutes, and from private collectors. The resulting collections usually are a mix of objects from various periods and regions, but sometimes focus on certain themes or topics.
In the United States, many large museums are funded primarily by government and local tax revenues; other smaller institutions depend on membership fees or donations from private individuals. Museums are also a source of employment for many people and serve as a social service for communities. Despite the fact that the museum industry has historically faced challenges in hiring, it is growing and becoming increasingly diverse.