That said, it should come as no surprise that museums are some of my very favorite places to visit, no matter what the subject matter. Which got me to thinking about how the concept of the museum itself came into being . . . So I decided to do a little research and here is my own highly abbreviated little catalogue on its history.
The word “museum” derives from the Greek “mouseion,” which means “seat of the Muses. Interestingly enough, in ancient times it referred to a place of scholarly contemplation and philosophical discussion rather than a place with any physical objects on display.
It was during the Renaissance, with the reawakening of interest in classical art and antiquity, as well as the growth of wealthy merchant and banking dynasties, that the first great private “collections” started to be assembled. They often included a wide range of things—paintings, coins, sculpture, antiquities, and what were termed “curiosities, which often were specimens from the natural world like plants and minerals. Cosimo de Medici, a leading patron of the arts, was renowned for his magnificent treasures, and the word “museum” began to be used in reference to the place where his objects were displayed.
The Medici family wished for the collection “to be accessible to the people of Tuscany and to all nations” and so the upper floor of the Uffizi Palace in Florence, which was built by Cosimo to house administrative offices—uffizi means “offices” in Italian—was converted to a gallery space and opened to the public in 1582. And the trend was spreading to royal courts all across Europe. Augustus of Saxony displayed both scientific items and art in the “green vaults” of his Dresden palace, Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol assembled a fascinating collection that included Benin ivories and Chinese paintings at his castle near Innsbruck. Maximilian I of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf were other notable collectors of the era. (Many tourist handbooks mentioned these collections, as visitors were allowed to view them.)
During the 17th century, collections (which at this time were refered to as "cabinets") started to become more specialized, especially with the advent of scientific societies like the Royal Society, established in London in 1660, and the Academy of Sciences, formed in Paris in 1666. Curiosity about the natural world sparked exploration and experimentation, and the resulting discoveries were extensively catalogued. And as the spirit of the Enlightenment grew stronger in the 18th century, the desire to create a compendium of “encyclopedic” knowledge became even more prevalent. In France, Diderot, one of the coutry's leading philosophes, called for the establishment of a national museum with open access, and his was just one of the many voices stirring the transition from private to public collections
Now, the first recorded instance of private collection being given to a government or university occurred in 1523 when the Domenico brothers gifted their holdings to the Venetian Republic. However, a more momentous gift happened in the mid-1600s when Elias Ashmole donated his extensive private collection to Oxford University, with the stipulation that a building be erected to house it. The result was the Ashmolean Museum, which opened in 1683. (So along with a litany of other ‘firsts,” Oxford can also lay claim to being the first institution to receive a private collection, erect a building for it and admit the public . . . much to the ire of a German scholar who in 1710 wrote a letter home complaining that “ordinary folk” were allowed admittance along with the university scholars.)
The British government wasn’t far behind, thanks to the efforts of Sir Hans Sloane, a noted physician and naturalist. Over the course of his lifetime, Sloane amassed a collection over 71,000 objects, which he wanted to preserve intact for posterity. So he gifted it to King George II in return for a payment of 20,000 pounds to his heirs. To its everlasting credit, the government accepted the terms and by an Act of Parliament in 1753, the British Museum was established—the first national museum open to the public in the world. The doors opened in 1759 (it was first displayed in Montagu House, which stood on the Museum’s present-day site) and was open free of charge “all studious and curious Persons.” (For years, however, there were only a limited amount of daily admission tickets, which were highly sought after.)
In France, Louis XV began exhibiting some of the Royal collection of paintings at the Luxembourg Palace in 1750. Bowing to public pressure, Louis XVI expanded the displays to the Grand Galerie in the Louvre. But it took a Revolution (and the loss of poor Louis’s head) before the Louvre’s galleries were open to the public in 1793. The collection there grew rapidly—under orders from the Revolutionary Committee to bring back art as well as gold during his military campaigns in Italy, Napoleon collected a wealth of artistic treasures for the new institution, a pattern he continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars. (Much of the loot was ordered returned by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but by then, the Louvre was well-established as France’s premier museum.)
The museum concept quickly spread to other parts of the world. In America, the Charleston Library Society began forming a museum in 1773, while in 1786, the noted painter Charles Willson Peale spearheaded opening the Peale Museum in Philadelphia (for a time it was housed in Independence Hall.) Moving on to more exotic locales, Batavia Society of Arts and Science established a collection in 1778, and the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences was founded in Buenos Aires in 1812.
I could, of course, go on and on about the flowering of countless wonderful and fascinating museums around the globe, but let’s end our quick tour through history by compiling a list of our own favorites—what are your three top picks? (okay, okay, I know three are impossible, but let’s take a crack at it!) Mine are: The Metropolitan Museum in NYC, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Yale British Art Center in New Haven, CT. Now it’s your turn—please share!