A breif history about Museum
Museum, institution dedicated to helping people understand and appreciate the natural world, the history of civilizations, and the record of humanity’s artistic, scientific, and technological achievements. Museums collect objects of scientific, aesthetic, or historical importance; care for them; and study, interpret, and exhibit them for the purposes of public education and the advancement of knowledge. There are museums in almost every major city in the world and in many smaller communities as well.
Museums offer many benefits to their visitors, their communities, and society as a whole. As educational institutions, they offer unparalleled opportunities for self-directed learning and exploration by people of diverse ages, interests, backgrounds, and abilities. They are public gathering places where visitors can be entertained, inspired, and introduced to new ideas. Museums enrich local cultural life and make communities more appealing places to live and to visit.
For society as a whole, museums provide valuable intangible benefits as sources of national, regional, and local identity. They have the singular capacity to reflect both continuity and change, to preserve and protect cultural and natural heritage while vividly illustrating the progression of the human imagination and the natural world.
This article provides an overview of the different types of museums and explains how they acquire, care for, and exhibit their collections. It also discusses educational programs at museums and profiles museum staff and professional organizations. Other sections of the article trace the history of museums and outline the major trends and challenges facing museums today. Finally, the article describes major museums in countries throughout the world.
2) TYPES OF MUSEUMS
The major types of museums are art, history, natural history, and science. In certain museums, these disciplines may be combined. Within these categories there are also many specialized museums emphasizing particular topics or types of collections, such as museums of local history, music, the cultural heritage of native peoples, or maritime history.
In the United States, there are approximately 8,300 museums of all types, with history museums being the most common type. Canada has about 1,400 museums. In the late 1990s there were, annually, more than 800 million visits to U.S. museums and more than 25 million visits to Canadian museums.
The following sections describe the different types of museums and highlight major museums of these types in the United States and Canada. For information on museums in other countries, see the Museums of the World section of this article.
A) Art Museums
Art museums reflect artistic accomplishment, both historic and contemporary. Through exhibitions and educational programs, art museums enhance visitors’ understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of art. They contain many kinds of artworks, including paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, ceramics and glass, metalwork, and furniture. Art museums represent diverse cultural traditions from all parts of the world. One collection might contain Egyptian statuary, funerary objects, and jewelry; another might contain sculpture, masks, and utilitarian objects from Africa; and another might contain pottery, textiles, beadwork, and basketry from native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
Some art museums have comprehensive collections that span many styles and periods. Outstanding museums of this type include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; the Louvre in Paris, France; the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia; the National Gallery in London, England; and the Vatican Museum in Rome, Italy. Many art museums, however, specialize in works of certain periods or types. For example, the Tate Gallery in London is known for its collection of international modern art and its collection of British art from 1500 to the present. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City houses one of the world’s finest collections of 20th-century American art. Some museums are devoted to a single artist, allowing visitors to follow changes in an artist’s style throughout his or her career. Examples include the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which houses the world’s largest collection of works by American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Musée National Picasso in Paris, which has a collection of several thousand works of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.
Among the many outstanding art museums in the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded in 1870, ranks as one of the largest and most important. Its comprehensive holdings span 5,000 years and number in the millions. Among its renowned collections are those devoted to American decorative arts, costumes, medieval art, Islamic art, arms and armor, and Egyptian art. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in Massachusetts, founded in 1870, also has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence and is especially well known for its Asian art, classical art, American art, and decorative arts. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, in Pennsylvania, is an encyclopedic art museum with excellent collections of European painting and American painting and decorative arts. In the Midwest, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s leading art museums, with wide-ranging collections dating from the 14th century to the present and an acclaimed assemblage of works by impressionist and post-impressionist artists. The Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, is also a world-famous museum and boasts a major Asian art collection.
Among modern art museums in the United States, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has an unequaled collection representing every school of art from the late 19th through the 20th century. The museum was the first to collect examples in diverse media such as photography, film, video, and design. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is as renowned for its architecture as for its masterpieces of modern and contemporary art. Other notable modern art museums include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is one of the nation’s largest and most prominent art museums. Opened in 1941, it has a comprehensive collection of European and American painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and graphic arts from the late Middle Ages to the present. The Smithsonian Institution contains the national collections of the United States. The Smithsonian’s art museums include the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Freer Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum (formerly the National Museum of American Art), and National Portrait Gallery, all in Washington, D.C., and Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City.
The largest art museum in Canada is the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. An internationally recognized institution, the gallery holds the most extensive collection of historical and contemporary Canadian art in existence. It also has strong collections of Inuit art, Western European and 20th-century American art, and Asian art. Its photography and media-arts collections are among the finest in the world. In Montréal, Québec, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a comprehensive collection of arts and crafts, particularly those of Canada. The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto houses British, European, American, and Canadian art, as well as a large collection of sculptures by British artist Henry Moore. The Winnipeg Art Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art. The Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, has large collections of European and Canadian painting and sculpture.
B) History Museums
History museums are dedicated to promoting a greater appreciation and knowledge of history and its importance to understanding the present and anticipating the future. They range from historic sites and small historic house museums to large, encyclopedic institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Many cities and states have historical societies that operate museums or historic sites. History museums usually collect a wide range of objects, including fine art, furniture, clothing, documents, and other materials. Some history museums encompass the art or natural history of a region as well as its cultural history.
The most common type of history museum is the historic house. Historic house museums are residences or properties of historical interest that have been restored and opened to the public. Furnishings are chosen to reflect the period during which the most notable owners of the house were in residence. Historic houses in the United States include the birthplaces and homes of presidents, such as Mount Vernon and Monticello, the Virginia homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively; the residences or workplaces of prominent Americans, such as the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in North Carolina and the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey; and homes of local historical significance. The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save historic houses around the country and owns 20 historic properties. The National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior has responsibility for a number of historic sites and house museums.
Outdoor museums, where history is presented in the context of a community, are another popular type of history museum. They are also called historic villages or living history museums. The world’s largest outdoor history museum is Colonial Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Costumed staff role-play townspeople and historical figures, and hundreds of restored and reconstructed buildings—such as homes, taverns, and craft shops—allow visitors to experience life in an 18th-century colonial village. Another historic village, Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, recreates life in a typical New England community of the 1830s. The Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village is a large indoor-outdoor complex in Dearborn, Michigan, consisting of a museum of history and technology and some 100 historic structures from the 17th to the 20th century. Other notable outdoor history museums in United States include Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a reconstruction of the Pilgrim colony as it appeared in 1627; Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana, which recreates a 19th-century central Indiana rural settlement; and Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a restoration of an 18th-century Moravian community.
Many history museums are devoted to particular themes, periods, or groups of people. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, one of the nation’s most visited museums, has the largest collection in the world of historic aircraft and spacecraft. The American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, chronicles the nation’s textile industry from colonial times to the present. The U.S. Army Women’s Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia, represents women who have served in the United States Army since the American Revolution (1775-1783). The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., vividly relates the horrors of the Holocaust. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City uses a historic house setting to tell about American immigrants’ experiences.
Some museums explore the history of particular ethnic or cultural groups. Examples of museums that explore the ethnic American experience include the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan; the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California; and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, California. Major museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of Native Americans include the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut, and the Plains Indian Museum of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. The passage of laws regarding the repatriation of sacred and funerary objects, human remains, and other culturally significant objects has led many traditional museums to carefully evaluate their collections of Native American objects and to forge new working relationships with native peoples. (For more information, see the Repatriation and Restitution of Objects subsection in the Trends and Challenges section of this article.)
General anthropology museums trace the history of human civilization and human cultures, including art, language, religion, technology, and social structure. They often include exhibits on human evolution and archaeological displays of human fossils and ancient human tools or artifacts. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has one of the finest records of human cultural history in the Western Hemisphere, housing an outstanding collection of historic and prehistoric artifacts. The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque has permanent exhibitions on human evolution and peoples of the Southwest. Archaeology and anthropology exhibitions and collections are found not only in history museums but also in natural history, art, and specialized museums.
Notable among Canadian museums of history is the Canadian Museum of Civilization (formerly the National Museum of Man) in Hull, Québec, which features a First Peoples Hall devoted to the cultural, historical, and artistic accomplishments of Canadian aboriginal peoples. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, combines cultural history, ethnology, military history, mineralogy, and art collections. The Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, British Columbia, displays aboriginal art from the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, on the waterfront in Halifax, Nova Scotia, includes an exhibition on the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, many of whose victims are buried in the city. The Nova Scotia Museum is a decentralized system of 25 museums, including historic buildings, vessels, living history sites, and specialized museums.
For information on history museums in other countries, see the Museums of the World section of this article.
C) Natural History Museums
Natural history museums are devoted to sharing knowledge about the natural world in all its aspects. Many natural history museums were originally established as centers of scientific research, with collections that accumulated from research expeditions and fieldwork. Today, most major natural history museums combine scientific research with a strong emphasis on public education.
Collections and exhibitions in natural history museums generally focus on nature and culture. Dinosaurs, gems and minerals, native cultures, and ancient cultures are always popular exhibits at natural history museums. Other topics of interest include biodiversity, ecology, plants, human biology and evolution, meteorites, ocean life, birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians, mollusks, and vertebrate evolution.
The world’s leading natural history museums are major scientific research institutions with important collections of specimens and artifacts related to the natural world and the place of humans in it. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City contains some 32 million specimens, ranging from microscopic organisms to the world’s largest cut gem, the Brazilian Princess Topaz. It has the largest and most diverse array of vertebrate fossils in the world. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., is the largest research museum in the United States and has an encyclopedic collection of specimens and artifacts. The museum’s Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals houses one of the world’s finest collections of rare and priceless gems, including the Hope Diamond and the Star of Asia sapphire. The hall also features a collection of Moon rocks, Mars rocks, meteorites, and some of the oldest known Earth rocks.
The vast collections of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, include Sue, the world’s largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. Other highlights are exhibitions about ancient Egypt, the islands of the South Pacific, and Africa. Another well-known natural history museum is the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which has an outstanding fossil collection of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. In Canada, the Canadian Museum of Nature (formerly the National Museum of Natural Sciences) in Ottawa serves as the country’s national museum of natural history and is an important center of scientific research. Its collections comprise more than 10 million items spanning four billion years of history. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is a major research institution with comprehensive collections in the earth and life sciences and archaeology.
Environmental education is a major emphasis of many natural history museums and nature centers. The Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska, educates the public about the natural environment of its region through programs and exhibitions such as Darkened Waters, which explores the impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the worldwide oil spill problem. The Chula Vista Nature Center near San Diego, California, focuses on the biodiversity of the coastal wetlands area in which it is located. The Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans is an urban nature preserve that includes hardwood forest and freshwater wetlands habitats.
For information on natural history museums in other countries, see the Museums of the World section of this article.
D) Science Museums
Science museums and science-technology centers are dedicated to furthering the public understanding of science and scientific achievements. Using interactive exhibition techniques and participatory experiences, they stimulate curiosity and allow people to learn at their own pace while exploring the principles, concepts, and implications of science and technology.
Common exhibits teach visitors about computers, robots, machines, the human body and senses, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Often science museums include aquariums, planetariums, small zoos, and botanical gardens. Laser-light shows and large-format IMAX movies are popular attractions at many science museums. Some have children’s areas that offer activities and experiments geared to particular age groups.
Science museums are active environments with hands-on exhibitions and activities that encourage learning by doing. For example, working models of amusement park rides become an intriguing introduction to physics in an exhibit at the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, Illinois. At the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, visitors learn about levers by varying the length of a giant lever as they try to lift a 250-kg (550-lb) weight off the floor. Microscopes and take-apart models invite people to learn about human and animal vision in an exhibit at the Museum of Ophthalmology in San Francisco, California. The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, explores the science behind sports in its Sports Challenge exhibit, which features interactive and virtual reality games.
Among major science museums in the United States, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, is known as a pioneer in the development of innovative exhibits. It has more than 650 interactive exhibits in the areas of science, art, and human perception. Other leading museums are the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois, with more than 2,000 exhibits, including a full-scale replica of a coalmine and the world’s first streamlined, diesel-electric, articulated train; Boston’s Museum of Science, with interactive exhibits on physics, archaeology, electricity, light, and other topics; and the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a science center within the American Museum of Natural History that teaches visitors about the origin of the universe, space, stars, and the evolution of Earth. In Canada, major science museums include the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, which has exhibits on energy, communications, locomotives, and Canada’s involvement in space programs; and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, which features exhibits on the mind, computers, and the human body.
E) Other Museums
Many museums challenge traditional categories. These include sports museums and halls of fame, music museums, and children’s museums. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, has artifacts from celebrated players throughout the history of the game, an annual exhibition saluting the World Series champions, and an exhibition on fabled ballparks. Collections and programs at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, preserve the history of the sport.
A leading museum about music is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. It explores the past, present, and future of rock music through interactive exhibits and an extensive collection of artifacts. The Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington, also salutes rock and popular music in interactive and interpretive exhibits. In Kansas City, Missouri, the American Jazz Museum celebrates jazz and its greatest performers. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, documents the important contributions of country music to American culture with interactive exhibits and a large collection of artifacts, recordings, and films.
Children’s museums add a lively dimension to the museum community. Aimed at children and families, they focus on participatory learning. In Massachusetts, the Boston Children’s Museum is known for its innovative exhibits, educational materials, and community programs. In Indiana, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has exhibitions on many topics in science, history, and natural history. The oldest children’s museum in the United States is the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in New York City. It offers innovative programs to serve the needs of the urban community in which it is located.
3) MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
At the heart of almost every museum is its collection, which provides the intellectual content for its educational mission. A museum’s distinctive mission is to collect and preserve objects, record information about them, study them, and make them available to the public for educational purposes. These objects are valuable sources of knowledge and understanding about humanity and the natural world.
The number of objects in museums’ collections varies greatly. An art museum might have 2,000 artworks, while a natural history museum might have more than 20 million specimens and artifacts. Although each museum keeps a record of how many objects are in its collection, the number does not by itself indicate the collection’s quality or significance.
Each museum’s collection has a particular focus. A history museum, for example, can be comprehensive, documenting the history and culture of an entire nation, or it can be more specific, showing the experience of a particular cultural group within that nation or the heritage of a community or a region. Some museums, such as science-technology museums, nature centers, and children’s museums, do not rely principally on collections for their educational programs and exhibitions.
A) How Museums Collect
Most museums add objects to their collections through gifts and bequests (objects given to museums upon a person’s death), primarily from individuals. Museums actively develop relationships with potential donors to stimulate their interest in giving to the collection. People may decide to donate objects out of generosity, because they want to share what they have collected with the public. They may want to be sure that their collections or objects are safely preserved for future generations. Or they may seek the prestige of giving to a museum. In the United States and United Kingdom, people who donate objects to museums receive tax benefits.
Some museums have dedicated budgets for acquiring new objects. Museums use these funds to purchase objects from collectors, dealers, or at public auction. Only larger museums can hope to be successful in competing in the marketplace for objects with great artistic, historical, or scientific importance. In some cases, museums directly acquire objects or artifacts through archaeological fieldwork sponsored by the museum or conducted by its staff.
Museums also lend objects to other museums for educational, exhibition, or research purposes, either short-term or long-term. Since physical space limits the portion of a museum’s collection that can be on view, this arrangement is an opportunity to bring objects out of storage and broaden public access to them. It also permits the borrowing museum to supplement its own collection or present a well-rounded exhibition.
Museums can build high-quality collections only by establishing and following clear acquisition policies and plans. These policies selectively limit the categories of objects, relate collecting activity to the museum’s stated mission, and provide for realistic and manageable growth. A museum will revise these policies and plans periodically to strengthen areas of the collection or begin collecting in related areas.
Sometimes museums permanently remove an object or objects in their collection, an act known as deaccessioning. Professional ethics and practices govern the circumstances under which an object may be sold, exchanged, or otherwise removed, because museums are a form of public trust. Individual museums develop their own policies based on these ethical guidelines. Art museums have especially stringent ethical requirements governing deaccessioning. In the United States, for example, the code of ethics of the Association of Art Museum Directors specifies that proceeds from the sale of a work of art must be used only to replenish a museum’s collection.
B) Documenting the Collection
Recording and maintaining complete and accurate information about every work of art, historical artifact, or scientific specimen in a collection is an essential museum function. Complete documentation captures and preserves an object’s history, and it is the basis for research and exhibition development. Documentation also provides a record of legal title to museum objects and a means of monitoring the physical condition of collections.
Museums usually manage information about their collections in electronic databases. Each object is identified by a unique number, called an accession number, which is given to an object upon acquisition. An object’s permanent record includes basic facts about its acquisition, including the donor or other source and the year it was acquired. The object record also contains information on the artist or maker, provenance (ownership history), creation date or time period, description of the object, purchase price, measurements, identifying marks, condition, and related publications. Correspondence, clippings, and legal documents may also be included. Documentation is kept up to date by a museum’s registrar or collections manager and curators.
In addition to publishing printed catalogs of their collections, a growing number of museums make selected images and information from their collections available on their Internet sites. When doing so, museums must consider intellectual property issues, such as whether they have the rights to display a digital image of an artwork or object online. Museums are always seeking to improve documentation standards and practices to streamline information sharing among museums and to facilitate access to collections by scholars, researchers, and the public.
C) Conservation of Collections
The care and maintenance of cultural property—a term used to describe significant objects like those in museum collections—is a major obligation of museums. Activities that preserve museum objects for the future are known collectively as conservation. Professionals who perform these activities are known as conservators.
Conservators periodically examine objects, document their condition, and, if necessary, treat and repair them. They distinguish between two treatment approaches: stablization and restoration. An object may be stabilized to maintain its integrity and minimize deterioration, or it may be restored to a previous state. During restoration, conservators may add materials that are not original to the object. Recommended practices call for restoration techniques and materials that are visible and reversible and that preserve the characteristics of the object.
Conservation requires specialized skills, facilities, and equipment that vary according to the type of object—paintings, textiles, photographs, sculpture, film or video, and so forth. A painting conservator understands how to clean the surface of an oil painting whose surface has darkened or yellowed with age. A textile conservator can attach a lining and support layer to a fragile, historic embroidery work to strengthen it for display. Electronic media formats such as CD-ROM, which may be used to store digital photography or other works, degrade over a period of decades and must eventually be transferred to new disks or formats.
Conservators also establish preventive care measures, which provide optimum conditions to protect collections over time. All objects change over time because of physical or chemical deterioration and damage. Temperature, relative humidity, light, pollutants, and handling are the primary threats to museum objects of all kinds. Temperature and humidity levels must remain constant and moderate, avoiding excessively warm or moist conditions and fluctuations that can accelerate deterioration and encourage mold growth and insect activity. Exposure to ultraviolet light from daylight and sources such as fluorescent lamps must be controlled. Exhibition and storage areas must be pest-proof and free of indoor pollutants.
Museums must provide adequate security, including protection against fire, theft, vandalism, and accident. Museums always insure collection objects while in transit, and many insure their permanent collections as well. When an object is handled or moved, even only a few steps, museum staff must observe accepted standards for the care and handling of objects with historic, aesthetic, or scientific value.
Due to space constraints, museums usually can display only a small portion of their collections at one time. The rest must be stored using suitable equipment and materials under proper environmental conditions. Museum objects often require specially designed containers, drawers, shelves, or racks. Large objects such as aircraft or automobiles require specially designed facilities.
D) Using Collections for Research
Museum collections offer cultural and scientific treasures for researchers, scholars, and specialists. The research use of a collection is an important aspect of a museum’s responsibility to expand knowledge and increase understanding.
The research carried out in museums varies among disciplines and among museums. Many natural history museums, for example, are major centers of research in the natural sciences, and their research collections are made available to scientists. Major museums also employ their own scholars and scientists who conduct research both in the field and in the museum. Like university scholars, museum scholars present their findings through academic publications, but they also give public lectures and contribute to museum exhibitions. Research activity in art museums and history museums often centers on the collections and exhibitions.
Some museums have on-site resource centers and libraries that are available to a variety of users, including academic researchers, teachers, students, and the public. These facilities provide access to collection information, library and archival materials, and educational materials on the museum’s collections and exhibitions. In addition, many museums provide electronic access to collection information through the Internet, making images and information about museum objects available on their Web sites for educational use.