AskDefine | Define museums

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  1. Plural of museum

Extensive Definition

A museum is a "permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment", as defined by the International Council of Museums. The UK Museums Association definition (adopted 1998) is: There are tens of thousands of museums all over the world. For a relatively short list, see the List of museums.


The English "museum" comes from the Latin word, and is pluralized as "museums" (or, rarely, "musea"). It is originally from the Greek Μουσείον (Mouseion), which denotes a place or temple dedicated to the Muses (the patron divinities in Greek mythology of the arts), and hence a building set apart for study and the arts, especially the institute for philosophy and research at the Library established at Alexandria by Ptolemy I Soter c280 BCE. This is considered by many to be the first museum/library.


Museums collect and care for objects of scientific, artistic, or historical importance and make them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities throughout the world and more local ones exist in smaller cities, towns and even the countryside. Many museums offer programs and activities for a range of audiences, including adults, children, and families, as well as those for more specific professions. Programs for the public may consist of lectures or tutorials by the museum faculty or field experts, films, musical or dance performances, and technology demonstrations. Many times, museums concentrate on the host region's culture. Although most museums do not allow physical contact with the associated artifacts, there are some that are interactive and encourage a more hands-on approach. Modern trends in museology have broadened the range of subject matter and introduced many interactive exhibits, which give the public the opportunity to make choices and engage in activities that may vary the experience from person to person. With the advent of the internet, there are growing numbers of virtual exhibits, i.e. web versions of exhibits showing images and playing recorded sound.
Museums are usually open to the general public, sometimes charging an admission fee. Some museums are publicly funded and have free entrance, either permanently or on special days, e.g. once per week or year.
Museums are usually not run for the purpose of making a profit, unlike private galleries which more often engage in the sale of objects. There are governmental museums, non-governmental or non-profit museums, and privately owned or family museums. Museums can be a great source of about cultures and history.

Types of museums

There are very many types of museums, from very large collections in major cities, covering many of the categories below, to very small museums covering either a particular location in a general way, or a particular subject, such an individual notable person. Categories include: fine arts, applied arts, craft, archaeology, anthropology and ethnology, history, cultural history, military history, science, technology, children's museums, natural history, numismatics, botanical and zoological gardens and philately. Within these categories many museums specialize further, e.g. museums of modern art, local history, aviation history, agriculture or geology. A museum normally houses a core collection of important selected objects in its field. Objects are formally accessioned by being registered in the museum's collection with an artifact number and details recorded about their provenance. The persons in charge of the collection and of the exhibits are known as curators.

Art museums

An Art museum, also known as an art gallery, is a space for the exhibition of art, usually visual art, and usually primarily paintings, illustrations, and sculpture. Collections of drawings and old master prints are often not displayed on the walls, but kept in a print room. There may be collections of applied art, including ceramics, metalwork, furniture, artist's books and other types of object.
The first publicly owned museum in Europe was the Amerbach-Cabinet in Basel, originally a private collection sold to the city in 1661 and public since 1671 (now Kunstmuseum Basel). The Uffizi Gallery in Florence was initially conceived as a palace for the offices of Florentian magistrates (hence the name), it later evolved into a display place for many of the paintings and sculpture collected by the Medici family or commissioned by them. After the house of Medici was extinguished, the art treasures remained in Florence, forming one of the first modern museums. The gallery had been open to visitors by request since the sixteenth century, and in 1765 it was officially opened to the public. Another early public museum was The British Museum in London, which opened to the public in 1759. It was a "universal museum" with very varied collections covering art, applied art, archaeology, anthropology, history, and science, and a library. The science collections, library, paintings and modern sculpture have since been found separate homes, leaving history, archaeology, non-European and pre-Renaissance art, and prints and drawings.
The specialised art museum is considered a fairly modern invention, the first being the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg which was established in 1764.
The Louvre in Paris, France was established in 1793, soon after the French Revolution when the royal treasures were declared for the people. The Czartoryski Museum in Kraków was established in 1796 by Princess Izabela Czartoryska. This showed the beginnings of removing art collections from the private domain of aristocracy and the wealthy into the public sphere, where they were seen as sites for educating the masses in taste and cultural refinement.
History museums cover the knowledge of history and its relevance to the present and future. Some cover specialized curatorial aspects of history or a particular locality; others are more general. Such museums contain a wide range of objects, including documents, artifacts of all kinds, art, archaeological objects. Antiquities museums specialize in more archaeological findings.
A common type of history museum is a historic house. A historic house may be a building of special architectural interest, the birthplace or home of a famous person, or a house with an interesting history. Historic sites can also become museums, particularly those that mark public crimes, such as Tuol Sleng or Robben Island. Another type of history museum is a living museum. A living museum is where people recreate a time period to the fullest extent, including buildings, clothes and language. It is similar to historical reenactment.

Maritime museums

Maritime museums specialize in the display of objects relating to ships and travel on seas and lakes. They may include a historic ship (or a replica) made accessible as a museum ship.

Mobile museums

Mobile museum is a term applied to museums that make exhibitions from a vehicle, such as a van. Some institutions, such as St. Vital Historical Society and the Walker Art Center, use the term to refer to a portion of their collection that travels to sites away from the museum for educational purposes. Other mobile museums have no "home site", and use travel as their exclusive means of presentation.

Natural history museums

Museums of natural history and natural science typically exhibit work of the natural world. The focus lies on nature and culture. Exhibitions may educate the masses about dinosaurs, ancient history, and anthropology. Evolution, environmental issues, and biodiversity are major areas in natural science museums. Notable museums of this type include the Natural History Museum in London, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in Oxford, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Open air museums

Open air museums collect and re-erect old buildings at large outdoor sites, usually in settings of re-created landscapes of the past. The first one was King Oscar II's collection near Oslo in Norway, opened in 1881 and is now the Norsk Folkemuseum. In 1891 Arthur Hazelius founded the Skansen in Stockholm, which became the model for subsequent open air museums in Northern and Eastern Europe, and eventually in other parts of the world. Most open air museums are located in regions where wooden architecture prevail, as wooden structures may be translocated without substantial loss of authenticity. A more recent but related idea is realized in ecomuseums, which originated in France.

Science museums

Science museums and technology centers revolve around scientific marvels and their history. To explain complicated inventions, a combination of demonstrations, interactive programs and thought-provoking media are used. Some museums may have exhibits on topics such as computers, aviation, railway museums, physics, astronomy, and the animal kingdom. Science museums, in particular, may consist of planetaria, or large theatre usually built around a dome. Museums may have IMAX feature films, which may provide 3-D viewing or higher quality picture. As a result, IMAX content provides a more immersive experience for people of all ages. Also new virtual museums, known as Net Museums, have been appearing. These are usually web sites belonging to real museums and containing photo galleries of items found in those real museums. This is very useful for people far away who wish to see the contents of these museums.
List of science museums

Specialized museums

A number of different museums exist to demonstrate a variety of topics. Music museums may celebrate the life and work of composers or musicians, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Other music museums include live music recitals such as the Handel House Museum in London.
Museums targeted for the youth, such as children's museums in many parts of the world, often exhibit interactive and educational material on a wide array of topics. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is an institution of the sports category. The Corning Museum of Glass is devoted to the art, history, and science of glass. Interpretation centres are modern museums or visitors centres that often use new means of communication with the public.

Virtual museums

A recent development with the expansion of the web, is the establishment of virtual museums. While some have no counterpart in the real world, such as LIMAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Lima), which has no physical location and might be confused with the city's own museum, other online initiatives like the Virtual Museum of Canada provide physical museums with a web presence, as well as online curatorial platforms such as Rhizome. The art historian Griselda Pollock elaborated a virtual feminist museum, spreading between classical art to contemporary art.

Zoos and Zoological Gardens

Although zoos are not often thought of as museums, they are considered "living museums". They exist for the same purpose as other museums: to educate, inspire action, study, and preserve a collection. Notable zoos include the Bronx Zoo in New York, London Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, Berlin Zoo, Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, Frankfurt Zoo, and Zoo Zurich in Switzerland.


Early museums began as the private collections of wealthy individuals, families or institutions of art and rare or curious natural objects and artifacts. These were often displayed in so-called wonder rooms or cabinets of curiosities. Public access was often possible for the "respectable", especially to private art collections, but at the whim of the owner and his staff.
The first public museums in the world opened in Europe during the 18th century and the Age of Enlightenment:
  • the Amerbach Cabinet, originally a private collection, was bought by the university und city of Basel in 1661 and opend to the public in 1671.
  • the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford is the oldest museum in the United Kingdom. It opened in 1683 and the present building dates from 1845.
  • the Museo Sacro, the first museum in the Vatican Museums complex, was opened in Rome in 1756
  • the British Museum in London, was founded in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759. Sir Hans Sloan's personal collection of curios provided the initial foundation for the British Museum's collection.
  • the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which had been open to visitors on request since the 16th century, was officially opened to the public 1765
  • the Belvedere Palace of the Habsburg monarchs in Vienna opened with a collection of art in 1781
These "public" museums, however, were often accessible only by the middle and upper classes. It could be difficult to gain entrance. In London for example, prospective visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for admission. Even by 1800 it was possible to have to wait two weeks for an admission ticket. Visitors in small groups were limited to stays of two hours. In Victorian times in England it became popular for museums to be open on a Sunday afternoon (the only such facility allowed to do so) to enable the opportunity for "self improvement" of the other - working - classes.
The first truly public museum was the Louvre Museum in Paris, opened in 1793 during the French Revolution, which enabled for the first time in history free access to the former French royal collections for people of all stations and status. The fabulous art treasures collected by the French monarchy over centuries were accessible to the public three days each "décade" (the 10-day unit which had replaced the week in the French Republican Calendar). The Conservatoire du muséum national des Arts (National Museum of Arts's Conservatory) was charged with organizing the Louvre as a national public museum and the centerpiece of a planned national museum system. As Napoléon I conquered the great cities of Europe, confiscating art objects as he went, the collections grew and the organizational task became more and more complicated. After Napoleon was defeated in 1815, many of the treasures he had amassed were gradually returned to their owners (and many were not). His plan was never fully realized, but his concept of a museum as an agent of nationalistic fervor had a profound influence throughout Europe.
American museums eventually joined European museums as the world's leading centers for the production of new knowledge in their fields of interest. A period of intense museum building, in both an intellectual and physical sense was realized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (this is often called "The Museum Period" or "The Museum Age"). While many American museums, both Natural History museums and Art museums alike, were founded with the intention of focusing on the scientific discoveries and artistic developments in North America, many moved to emulate their European counterparts in certain ways (including the development of Classical collections from ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia and Rome). It is typically understood that universities took the place of museums as the centers for innovative research in the United States well before the start of the Second World War, however, museums to this day contribute new knowledge to their fields and continue to build collections that are useful for both research and display.


There have been controversies recently regarding artifacts being damaged or being exposed to high risk of damage whilst on loan. For example, an ancient Egyptian stone lion on loan from the British Museum was being manually carried down a flight of stairs (as shown in a BBC Television documentary 2007). The supervisor in charge advised the people carrying it if it starts to fall, let it drop. The irony is that these artifacts have been carefully excavated and transported, often thousands of miles, without damage. Once arriving at a museum the artifact usually does not receive the same level of care and attention that it received whilst being excavated and transported. Another example of this is the recent return of a Terracotta Army horse on loan from a museum in Rome, which showed the item to be damaged on return. As yet, there is no internationally agreed protocol for a level or standard of care of artifacts on display or on loan from museums.
Like any institution dedicated to the memorialization of the past, museums play a substantial role in the construction of ideologies and identities, which is accomplished through a variety of means, though these typically pertain to the particular ways in which the past is put on public display.
Museums serve to homogenize our views of the past by the following means: 1. failing to account for matters of historical (or more accurately, historiographical) dispute; by not providing alternative viewpoints 2. by presenting the past in terms of a coherent, linear, unified narrative 3. by creating complex audio, visual and textual experiences, in which the observer is overwhelmingly confronted by the massive weight of all the physical evidence: the photos, the facts, the personal vignettes -- after being penetrated in such an intimate way by a holistic bodily experience, observers are then typically directed to gift shops, where they are likely encouraged to purchase books which can help to further reinforce the desired indoctrination of the museum's particular ideology 4. they present a view of history based entirely upon the romanticization of the achievements of great men, brilliant thinkers, cultural or scientific innovators, war heroes (and their technologies)
As is self-evident to the seasoned traveler, most national museums around the world adhere to the same basic structural patterns, whereby the past is divided up into a series of epochs, beginning with "prehistory," then passing through the ancient and medieval worlds until finally arriving at the nation's present. This view of the history is plainly teleological, which is to say that the past is depicted as a series of trends and developments which inevitably led to the present condition (i.e. the past could not have resulted in anything else).
The point is often under-emphasized by those who love museums that a sizable percentage of museum artifacts have been acquired unethically (if ethics are defined in a Kantian sense at least). The government of Egypt for instance has consistently pressed the British Museum in London to return the enormous hordes of pharaonic objects plundered by British (though not exclusively British) archaeologists during Britain's period of colonial administration in Egypt, which began officially in 1882 (while the end is just a matter of opinion).
The National Museum of Iraq was created during the British Mandate period through the efforts of colonial officer and Oriental Secretary of the short-lived British Mandate, Gertrude Bell.


The museum is usually run by a director, who has a curatorial staff that cares for the objects and arranges their display. Large museums often will have a research division or institute, which are frequently involved with studies related to the museum's items, as well as an education department, in charge of providing interpretation of the materials to the general public. The director usually reports to a higher body, such as a governmental department or a board of trustees.
Objects come to the collection through a variety of means. Either the museum itself or an associated institute may organize expeditions to acquire more items or documentation for the museum. More typically, however, museums will purchase or trade for artifacts or receive them as donations or bequests.
For instance, a museum featuring Impressionist art may receive a donation of a Cubist work which simply cannot be fit into the museum's exhibits, but it can be used to help acquire a painting more central to the museum's focus. However, this process of acquiring objects outside the museum's purview in order to acquire more desirable objects is considered unethical by many museum professionals. Larger museums may have an "Acquisitions Department" whose staff is engaged full time for this purpose. Most museums have a collections policy to help guide what is and is not included in the collection.
Museums often cooperate to sponsor joint, often traveling, exhibits on particular subjects when one museum may not by itself have a collection sufficiently large or important. These exhibits have limited engagements and often depend upon an additional entry fee from the public to cover costs.

Museum exhibition design

The design of museums has evolved throughout history. Interpretive museums, as opposed to art museums, have missions reflecting curatorial guidance through the subject matter which now include content in the form of images, audio and visual effects, and interactive exhibits.
Some of these experiences have very few or no artifacts; the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, being notable examples where there are few artifacts, but have strong, memorable stories to tell or information to interpret. In contrast, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC uses many artifacts in their memorable exhibitions.
Most mid-size and large museums employ design staff for graphic and environmental design projects, including exhibitions. In addition to traditional 2-D and 3-D designers and architects, these staff departments may include audio-visual specialists, software designers, audience research and evaluation specialists, writers, editors, and preparators or art handlers. These staff specialists may also be charged with supervising contract design or production services.


Further reading

  • Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, Routledge, 1995.

External links

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