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Map of museums all over the world (interactive version) World museums.png
Map of museums all over the world (interactive version)
Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt Grand-Egyptian-Museum-3.jpg
Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., United States National Museum of African American History and Culture in February 2020.jpg
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., United States
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor Site Museum in Shaanxi province, China Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum.jpg
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor Site Museum in Shaanxi province, China
House of Slaves, a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade, in Goree, Senegal Senegal Goree (8).jpg
House of Slaves, a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade, in Gorée, Senegal
Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, Netherlands Amsterdam (NL), Anne-Frank-Huis -- 2015 -- 7185.jpg
Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, Netherlands

A museum ( /mjuːˈzəm/ mew-ZEE-əm; plural museums or, rarely, musea) is a building or institution that cares for and displays a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance. [1] Many public museums make these items available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. [2] The largest museums are located in major cities throughout the world, while thousands of local museums exist in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Museums have varying aims, ranging from the conservation and documentation of their collection, serving researchers and specialists, to catering to the general public. The goal of serving researchers is not only scientific, but intended to serve the general public.


There are many types of museums, including art museums, natural history museums, science museums, war museums, and children's museums. According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), there are more than 55,000 museums in 202 countries. [3]


The English "museum" comes from the Latin word, and is pluralized as "museums" (or rarely, "musea"). It is originally from the Ancient Greek Μουσεῖον ( Mouseion ), which denotes a place or temple dedicated to the muses (the patron divinities in Greek mythology of the arts), and hence was a building set apart for study and the arts, [4] especially the Musaeum (institute) for philosophy and research at Alexandria, built under Ptolemy I Soter about 280 BC. [5]


National Dinosaur Museum, Canberra, Australia NDM Activity - Guided tour.JPG
National Dinosaur Museum, Canberra, Australia

The purpose of modern museums is to collect, preserve, interpret, and display objects of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for the study and education of the public. From a visitor or community perspective, this purpose can also depend on one's point of view. A trip to a local history museum or large city art museum can be an entertaining and enlightening way to spend the day. To city leaders, an active museum community can be seen as a gauge of the cultural or economic health of a city, and a way to increase the sophistication of its inhabitants. To a museum professional, a museum might be seen as a way to educate the public about the museum's mission, such as civil rights or environmentalism. Museums are, above all, storehouses of knowledge. [ citation needed ] In 1829, James Smithson's bequest, that would fund the Smithsonian Institution, stated he wanted to establish an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge". [6]

National Museum of Iran, Tehran, Iran Lower Paleolithic fossils from Darband Cave, Paleolithic hall, National Museum of Iran.jpg
National Museum of Iran, Tehran, Iran

Museums of natural history in the late 19th century exemplified the scientific desire for classification and for interpretations of the world. Gathering all examples for each field of knowledge for research and display was the purpose. As American colleges grew in the 19th century, they developed their own natural history collections for the use of their students. By the last quarter of the 19th century, scientific research in universities was shifting toward biological research on a cellular level, and cutting-edge research moved from museums to university laboratories. [7] While many large museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution, are still respected as research centers, research is no longer a main purpose of most museums. While there is an ongoing debate about the purposes of interpretation of a museum's collection, there has been a consistent mission to protect and preserve cultural artifacts for future generations. Much care, expertise, and expense is invested in preservation efforts to retard decomposition in aging documents, artifacts, artworks, and buildings. All museums display objects that are important to a culture. As historian Steven Conn writes, "To see the thing itself, with one's own eyes and in a public place, surrounded by other people having some version of the same experience, can be enchanting." [8]

Museum purposes vary from institution to institution. Some favor education over conservation, or vice versa. For example, in the 1970s, the Canada Science and Technology Museum favored education over preservation of their objects. They displayed objects as well as their functions. One exhibit featured a historical printing press that a staff member used for visitors to create museum memorabilia. [9] Some museums seek to reach a wide audience, such as a national or state museum, while others have specific audiences, like the LDS Church History Museum or local history organizations. Generally speaking, museums collect objects of significance that comply with their mission statement for conservation and display.

Soumaya Museum, Mexico City, Mexico Segundo Editaton Soumaya Abierto 01.JPG
Soumaya Museum, Mexico City, Mexico

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. In 2009, Hampton Court Palace, a palace of Henry VIII, in England opened the council room to the general public to create an interactive environment for visitors. Rather than allowing visitors to handle 500-year-old objects, however, the museum created replicas, as well as replica costumes. The daily activities, historic clothing, and even temperature changes immerse the visitor in an impression of what Tudor life may have been. [10]

Definitions by major museum professional organizations

Major museum professional organizations from around the world offer some definitions as to what a museum is and their purpose. Common themes in all the definitions are public good and care, preservation, and interpretation of collections.

The International Council of Museums' current definition of a museum (adopted in 2022): "A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing." [11]

The Canadian Museums Association's definition: "A museum is a non-profit, permanent establishment, that does not exist primarily for the purpose of conducting temporary exhibitions and that is open to the public during regular hours and administered in the public interest for the purpose of conserving, preserving, studying, interpreting, assembling and exhibiting to the public for the instruction and enjoyment of the public, objects and specimens or educational and cultural value including artistic, scientific, historical and technological material." [12]

The United Kingdom's Museums Association's definition: "Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artifacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society."

While the American Alliance of Museums does not have a definition their list of accreditation criteria to participate in their Accreditation Program states a museum must: "Be a legally organized nonprofit institution or part of a nonprofit organization or government entity; Be essentially educational in nature; Have a formally stated and approved mission; Use and interpret objects or a site for the public presentation of regularly scheduled programs and exhibits; Have a formal and appropriate program of documentation, care, and use of collections or objects; Carry out the above functions primarily at a physical facility or site; Have been open to the public for at least two years; Be open to the public at least 1,000 hours a year; Have accessioned 80 percent of its permanent collection; Have at least one paid professional staff with museum knowledge and experience; Have a full-time director to whom authority is delegated for day-to-day operations; Have the financial resources sufficient to operate effectively; Demonstrate that it meets the Core Standards for Museums; Successfully complete the Core Documents Verification Program" [13]

Additionally a there is a legal definition of museum in United States legislation in the authorizing the establishment of the Institute of Museum and Library Services: "Museum means a public, tribal, or private nonprofit institution which is organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational, cultural heritage, or aesthetic purposes and which, using a professional staff: Owns or uses tangible objects, either animate or inanimate; Cares for these objects; and Exhibits them to the general public on a regular basis." (Museum Services Act 1976) [14]


Ancient history

One of the earlist known museum labels, from Ennigaldi-Nanna's museum in Ur, c. 530 BC. Belshalti-nannar's museum label.jpg
One of the earlist known museum labels, from Ennigaldi-Nanna's museum in Ur, c. 530 BC.

One of the oldest museums known is Ennigaldi-Nanna's museum, built by Princess Ennigaldi in modern Iraq at the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The site dates from c. 530 BCE, and contained artifacts from earlier Mesopotamian civilizations. Notably, a clay drum label—written in three languages—was found at the site, referencing the history and discovery of a museum item. [15] [16]

Ancient Greeks and Romans collected and displayed art and objects but perceived museums differently from modern day views. In the classical period the museums were the temples and their precincts which housed collections of votive offerings. Paintings and sculptures were displayed in gardens, forums, theaters, and bathhouses. [17] In the ancient past there was little differentiation between libraries and museums with both occupying the building and were frequently connected to a temple or royal palace. The Museum of Alexandria is believed to be one of the earliest museums in the world. While it connected to the Library of Alexandria it is not clear if the museum was in a different building from the library or was part of the library complex. While little was known about the museum it was an inspiration for museums during the early Renaissance period. [18] The royal palaces also functioned as a kind of museum outfitted with art and objects from conquered territories and gifts from ambassadors from other kingdoms allowing the ruler to display the amassed collections to guests and to visiting dignitaries. [19]

Also in Alexandria from the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 285-246 BCE), was the first zoological park. At first used by Philadelphus in an attempt to domesticate African elephants for use in war, the elephants were also used for show along with a menagerie of other animals specimens including hartebeests, ostriches, zebras, leopards, giraffes, rhinoceros, and pythons. [18] [20]

Early history

The old Ashmolean Museum building Ashmolean Museum (BM 1954,1103.1).jpg
The old Ashmolean Museum building

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. These contemporary museums first emerged in western Europe, then spread into other parts of the world. [21]

Public access to these museums was often possible for the "respectable", especially to private art collections, but at the whim of the owner and his staff. One way that elite men during this time period gained a higher social status in the world of elites was by becoming a collector of these curious objects and displaying them. Many of the items in these collections were new discoveries and these collectors or naturalists, since many of these people held interest in natural sciences, were eager to obtain them. By putting their collections in a museum and on display, they not only got to show their fantastic finds but also used the museum as a way to sort and "manage the empirical explosion of materials that wider dissemination of ancient texts, increased travel, voyages of discovery, and more systematic forms of communication and exchange had produced". [22]

One of these naturalists and collectors was Ulisse Aldrovandi, whose collection policy of gathering as many objects and facts about them was "encyclopedic" in nature, reminiscent of that of Pliny, the Roman philosopher and naturalist. [23] The idea was to consume and collect as much knowledge as possible, to put everything they collected and everything they knew in these displays. In time, however, museum philosophy would change and the encyclopedic nature of information that was so enjoyed by Aldrovandi and his cohorts would be dismissed as well as "the museums that contained this knowledge". The 18th-century scholars of the Age of Enlightenment saw their ideas of the museum as superior and based their natural history museums on "organization and taxonomy" rather than displaying everything in any order after the style of Aldrovandi. [24]

The first "public" museums were often accessible only by the middle and upper classes. It could be difficult to gain entrance. When the British Museum opened to the public in 1759, it was a concern that large crowds could damage the artifacts. Prospective visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for admission, and small groups were allowed into the galleries each day. [25] The British Museum became increasingly popular during the 19th century, amongst all age groups and social classes who visited the British Museum, especially on public holidays. [26]

The Ashmolean Museum, however, founded in 1677 from the personal collection of Elias Ashmole, was set up in the University of Oxford to be open to the public and is considered by some to be the first modern public museum. [27] The collection included that of Elias Ashmole which he had collected himself, including objects he had acquired from the gardeners, travellers and collectors John Tradescant the elder and his son of the same name. The collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, and zoological specimens—one of which was the stuffed body of the last dodo ever seen in Europe; but by 1755 the stuffed dodo was so moth-eaten that it was destroyed, except for its head and one claw. The museum opened on 24 May 1683, with naturalist Robert Plot as the first keeper. The first building, which became known as the Old Ashmolean, is sometimes attributed to Sir Christopher Wren or Thomas Wood. [28]

The Louvre museum in 1853. Reunion des Tuileries au Louvre 1852-1857 Getty Museum vol1 05 View of the Cour Napoleon toward the Tuileries.jpg
The Louvre museum in 1853.
Nantong Museum, first Chinese-sponsored museum. The South Building of Nantong Museum 01 2013-01.JPG
Nantong Museum, first Chinese-sponsored museum.

In France, the first public museum was the Louvre Museum in Paris, [29] opened in 1793 during the French Revolution, which enabled for the first time 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.

Chinese and Japanese visitors to Europe were fascinated by the museums they saw there, but had cultural difficulties in grasping their purpose and finding an equivalent Chinese or Japanese term for them. Chinese visitors in the early 19th century named these museums based on what they contained, so defined them as "bone amassing buildings" or "courtyards of treasures" or "painting pavilions" or "curio stores" or "halls of military feats" or "gardens of everything". Japan first encountered Western museum institutions when it participated in Europe's World's Fairs in the 1860s. The British Museum was described by one of their delegates as a 'hakubutsukan', a 'house of extensive things' – this would eventually become accepted as the equivalent word for 'museum' in Japan and China. [30]

Modern history

New-York Historical Society. Building erected in 1855-57 and served as the Society's home until 1908 337 NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY, SECOND AVENUE AND EAST 11TH STREET.jpg
New-York Historical Society. Building erected in 1855-57 and served as the Society's home until 1908

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). Drawing on Michel Foucault's concept of liberal government, Tony Bennett has suggested the development of more modern 19th-century museums was part of new strategies by Western governments to produce a citizenry that, rather than be directed by coercive or external forces, monitored and regulated its own conduct. To incorporate the masses in this strategy, the private space of museums that previously had been restricted and socially exclusive were made public. As such, objects and artifacts, particularly those related to high culture, became instruments for these "new tasks of social management". [31] Universities became the primary centers for innovative research in the United States well before the start of World War II. Nevertheless, museums to this day contribute new knowledge to their fields and continue to build collections that are useful for both research and display. [32]

Exhibiting human remains of Native Americans. Museum exhibit, Provincial Museum, Normal School.jpg
Exhibiting human remains of Native Americans.

The late twentieth century witnessed intense debate concerning the repatriation of religious, ethnic, and cultural artifacts housed in museum collections. In the United States, several Native American tribes and advocacy groups have lobbied extensively for the repatriation of sacred objects and the reburial of human remains. [33] In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which required federal agencies and federally funded institutions to repatriate Native American "cultural items" to culturally affiliate tribes and groups. [34] Similarly, many European museum collections often contain objects and cultural artifacts acquired through imperialism and colonization. Some historians and scholars have criticized the British Museum for its possession of rare antiquities from Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East. [35]


Honours board listing Directors of a Museum CheesemanRoom 090721 011 (cropped).jpg
Honours board listing Directors of a Museum

The roles associated with the management of a museum largely depend on the size of the institution. [36] Together, the Board and the Director establish a system of governance that is guided by policies that set standards for the institution. Documents that set these standards include an institutional or strategic plan, institutional code of ethics, bylaws, and collections policy. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has also formulated a series of standards and best practices that help guide the management of museums.

Curator and exhibit designer dress a mannequin for an exhibit. LBJ Foundation DIG14005 035 (32274126330).jpg
Curator and exhibit designer dress a mannequin for an exhibit.
Restoration of a gilded mirror by Conservator. 06 Restoration of gilded mirror in Muzeum Gornoslaskie, Bytom, Poland - furniture restorer working.jpg
Restoration of a gilded mirror by Conservator.

Various positions within the museum carry out the policies established by the Board and the Director. All museum employees should work together toward the museum's institutional goal. Here is a list of positions commonly found at museums:

Other positions commonly found at museums include: building operator, public programming staff, photographer, librarian, archivist, groundskeeper, volunteer coordinator, preparator, security staff, development officer, membership officer, business officer, gift shop manager, public relations staff, and graphic designer.

At smaller museums, staff members often fulfill multiple roles. Some of these positions are excluded entirely or may be carried out by a contractor when necessary.


The cultural property stored in museums is threatened in many countries by natural disaster, war, terrorist attacks or other emergencies. To this end, an internationally important aspect is a strong bundling of existing resources and the networking of existing specialist competencies in order to prevent any loss or damage to cultural property or to keep damage as low as possible. International partner for museums is UNESCO and Blue Shield International in accordance with the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property from 1954 and its 2nd Protocol from 1999. For legal reasons, there are many international collaborations between museums, and the local Blue Shield organizations. [42] [43]

Blue Shield has conducted extensive missions to protect museums and cultural assets in armed conflict, such as 2011 in Egypt and Libya, 2013 in Syria and 2014 in Mali and Iraq. During these operations, the looting of the collection is to be prevented in particular. [44]


Exhibit planning Computer History Museum Wikipedia exhibit planning meeting 8.jpg
Exhibit planning

The design of museums has evolved throughout history. However, museum planning involves planning the actual mission of the museum along with planning the space that the collection of the museum will be housed in. Intentional museum planning has its beginnings with the museum founder and librarian John Cotton Dana. Dana detailed the process of founding the Newark Museum in a series of books in the early 20th century so that other museum founders could plan their museums. Dana suggested that potential founders of museums should form a committee first, and reach out to the community for input as to what the museum should supply or do for the community. [45] According to Dana, museums should be planned according to community's needs:

"The new museum ... does not build on an educational superstition. It examines its community's life first, and then straightway bends its energies to supplying some the material which that community needs, and to making that material's presence widely known, and to presenting it in such a way as to secure it for the maximum of use and the maximum efficiency of that use." [46]

The way that museums are planned and designed vary according to what collections they house, but overall, they adhere to planning a space that is easily accessed by the public and easily displays the chosen artifacts. These elements of planning have their roots with John Cotton Dana, who was perturbed at the historical placement of museums outside of cities, and in areas that were not easily accessed by the public, in gloomy European style buildings. [47]

Questions of accessibility continue to the present day. Many museums strive to make their buildings, programming, ideas, and collections more publicly accessible than in the past. Not every museum is participating in this trend, but that seems to be the trajectory of museums in the twenty-first century with its emphasis on inclusiveness. One pioneering way museums are attempting to make their collections more accessible is with open storage. Most of a museum's collection is typically locked away in a secure location to be preserved, but the result is most people never get to see the vast majority of collections. The Brooklyn Museum's Luce Center for American Art practices this open storage where the public can view items not on display, albeit with minimal interpretation. The practice of open storage is all part of an ongoing debate in the museum field of the role objects play and how accessible they should be. [48]

In terms of modern museums, 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. Museum creation begins with a museum plan, created through a museum planning process. The process involves identifying the museum's vision and the resources, organization and experiences needed to realize this vision. A feasibility study, analysis of comparable facilities, and an interpretive plan are all developed as part of the museum planning process.

Some museum experiences have very few or no artifacts and do not necessarily call themselves museums, and their mission reflects this; the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, being notable examples where there are few artifacts, but strong, memorable stories are told or information is interpreted. In contrast, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. uses many artifacts in their memorable exhibitions.

Museums are laid out in a specific way for a specific reason and each person who enters the doors of a museum will see its collection completely differently to the person behind them- this is what makes museums fascinating because they are represented differently to each individual. [49] :9–10

Financial uses

In recent years, some cities have turned to museums as an avenue for economic development or rejuvenation. This is particularly true in the case of postindustrial cities. [50] Examples of museums fulfilling these economic roles exist around the world. For example, the spectacular Guggenheim Bilbao was built in Bilbao, Spain in a move by the Basque regional government to revitalize the dilapidated old port area of that city. The Basque government agreed to pay $100 million for the construction of the museum, a price tag that caused many Bilbaoans to protest against the project. [51] Nonetheless, the gamble has appeared to pay off financially for the city, with over 1.1 million people visiting the museum in 2015. Key to this is the large demographic of foreign visitors to the museum, with 63% of the visitors residing outside of Spain and thus feeding foreign investment straight into Bilbao. [52] A similar project to that undertaken in Bilbao was also built on the disused shipyards of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Titanic Belfast was built for the same price as the Guggenheim Bilbao (and which was incidentally built by the same architect, Frank Gehry) in time for the 100th anniversary of the Belfast-built ship's maiden voyage in 2012. Initially expecting modest visitor numbers of 425,000 annually, first year visitor numbers reached over 800,000, with almost 60% coming from outside Northern Ireland. [53] In the United States, similar projects include the 81, 000 square foot Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia and The Broad Museum in Los Angeles.

Museums being used as a cultural economic driver by city and local governments has proven to be controversial among museum activists and local populations alike. Public protests have occurred in numerous cities which have tried to employ museums in this way. While most subside if a museum is successful, as happened in Bilbao, others continue especially if a museum struggles to attract visitors. The Taubman Museum of Art is an example of a museum which cost a lot (eventually $66 million) but attained little success, and continues to have a low endowment for its size. [54] Some museum activists also see this method of museum use as a deeply flawed model for such institutions. Steven Conn, one such museum proponent, believes that "to ask museums to solve our political and economic problems is to set them up for inevitable failure and to set us (the visitor) up for inevitable disappointment." [50]


Officials blamed lack of funding resulting in a fire gutting Brazil's Museu Nacional. Fire - Museu Nacional 03.jpg
Officials blamed lack of funding resulting in a fire gutting Brazil's Museu Nacional.

Museums are facing funding shortages. Funding for museums comes from four major categories, and as of 2009 the breakdown for the United States is as follows: Government support (at all levels) 24.4%, private (charitable) giving 36.5%, earned income 27.6%, and investment income 11.5%. [56] Government funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest museum funder in the United States, decreased by 19.586 million between 2011 and 2015, adjusted for inflation. [57] [58] The average spent per visitor in an art museum in 2016 was $8 between admissions, store and restaurant, where the average expense per visitor was $55. [59] Corporations, which fall into the private giving category, can be a good source of funding to make up the funding gap. The amount corporations currently give to museums accounts for just 5% of total funding. [60] Corporate giving to the arts, however, was set to increase by 3.3% in 2017. [61]

Exhibition design

Painting arranged in groupings 'Salon Style' Dresden - Japanese tourist with baby - 1786.jpg
Painting arranged in groupings 'Salon Style'

Most mid-size and large museums employ exhibit design staff for graphic and environmental design projects, including exhibitions. In addition to traditional 2-D and 3-D designers [62] and architects, these staff departments may include audio-visual specialists, software designers, audience research, evaluation specialists, writers, editors, and preparators or art handlers. These staff specialists may also be charged with supervising contract design or production services. The exhibit design process builds on the interpretive plan for an exhibit, determining the most effective, engaging and appropriate methods of communicating a message or telling a story. The process will often mirror the architectural process or schedule, moving from conceptual plan, through schematic design, design development, contract document, fabrication, and installation. Museums of all sizes may also contract the outside services of exhibit fabrication businesses. [63]

Museum, Winona Normal School.jpg
Chihuahuita exhibit at the El Paso Museum of History.jpg
Left: "Cabinet of curiosities" style of exhibit, c.1890. Right: Contemporary history exhibit, 2016.

Some museum scholars have even begun to question whether museums truly need artifacts at all. Historian Steven Conn provocatively asks this question, suggesting that there are fewer objects in all museums now, as they have been progressively replaced by interactive technology. [64] As educational programming has grown in museums, mass collections of objects have receded in importance. This is not necessarily a negative development. Dorothy Canfield Fisher observed that the reduction in objects has pushed museums to grow from institutions that artlessly showcased their many artifacts (in the style of early cabinets of curiosity) to instead "thinning out" the objects presented "for a general view of any given subject or period, and to put the rest away in archive-storage-rooms, where they could be consulted by students, the only people who really needed to see them". [65] This phenomenon of disappearing objects is especially present in science museums like the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which have a high visitorship of school-aged children who may benefit more from hands-on interactive technology than reading a label beside an artifact. [66]


The National Mall in Washington DC is home to variety of museum types. National mall (east) satellite image.jpg
The National Mall in Washington DC is home to variety of museum types.

There is no definitive standard as to the set types of museums. Additionally, the museum landscape has become so varied, that it may not be sufficient to use traditional categories to comprehend fully the vast variety existing throughout the world. However, it may be useful to categorize museums in different ways under multiple perspectives. Museums can vary based on size, from large institutions, to very small institutions focusing on specific subjects, such as a specific location, a notable person, or a given period of time. Museums also can be based on the main source of funding: central or federal government, provinces, regions, universities; towns and communities; other subsidised; nonsubsidised and private. [67]

It may sometimes be useful to distinguish between diachronic museums - those that interpret the way in which its subject matter has developed and evolved through time (examples: Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Diachronic Museum of Larissa), and synchronic museums - those that interpret the way in which its subject matter exists at one point in time (examples: The Anne Frank House and Colonial Williamsburg). According to University of Florida's Professor Eric Kilgerman, "While a museum in which a particular narrative unfolds within its halls is diachronic, those museums that limit their space to a single experience are called synchronic." [68]

In her book Civilizing the Museum, author Elaine Heumann Gurian proposes that there are five categories of museums based on intention not content: object centered, narrative, client centered, community centered, and national. [69]

Museums can also be categorized into major groups by the type of collections they display, to include: fine arts, applied arts, craft, archaeology, anthropology and ethnology, biography, history, cultural history, science, technology, children's museums, natural history, botanical and zoological gardens. Within these categories, many museums specialize further, e.g. museums of modern art, folk art, local history, military history, aviation history, philately, agriculture, or geology. The size of a museum's collection typically determines the museum's size, whereas its collection reflects the type of museum it is. Many museums normally display a "permanent collection" of important selected objects in its area of specialization, and may periodically display "special collections" on a temporary basis.[ citation needed ]

Major museum types

The following is a list to give an idea of the major museum types. While comprehensive it is not a definitive list.

Public vs. private museums

Private museums are organized by individuals and managed by a board and museum officers, but public museums are created and managed by federal, state, or local governments. A government can charter a museum through legislative action but the museum can still be private as it is not part of the government. The distinction regulates the ownership and legal accountability for the care of the collections. [38] [70]

Non-profit vs. for-profit museums

Nonprofit means that an organization is classified as a charitable corporation and is exempt from paying most taxes and the money the organization earns is invested in the organization itself. Money made by a private, for-profit museum is paid to the museum's owners or shareholders.

The nonprofit museum has a fiduciary responsibility in regards to the public, in essence the museum holds its collections and administers it for the benefit of the public. Collections of for-profit museums are legally corporate assets the museum administers for the benefit of the owners or shareholders. [38] [70]

Museums run by trusts vs. corporations

A trust is a legal instrument where trustees manage the trust's assets for the benefit of the museum following the specific wishes of the donor. This provides tax benefits for the donor, and also allows the donor to have control over how assets are distributed.

Corporations are legal entities and may acquire property in a way similar to how an individual can own property. Museums under incorporation are usually organized by a community or group of individuals. While a board of director's loyalty is to the corporation, a board of trustee's loyalty has to be loyal to the intention of the trust. The ramification is that a trust is far less flexible than a corporation. [71] [72]

Current challenges facing museums

Decolonization of museums

Moai figure at the British Museum Basalt statue, Hoa Hakananai'a (hidden or stolen friend). Moai; an ancestor figure, made by the Rapanui people. 1000-1200 CE. From Orongo (Polynesia, Easter Island); probably made in Rano Kao. British Museum.jpg
Moai figure at the British Museum

During the beginning of the 21st century, a growing global movement for the decolonization of museums has arisen. [73] Proponents of this movement argue that 'museums are a box of things' and do not represent complete stories; instead they show biased narratives based on ideologies, in which certain stories are intentionally disregarded. [49] :9–18 Through this, people are encouraging others to consider this missing perspective, when looking at museum collections, as every object viewed in such environments was placed by an individual to represent a certain viewpoint, be it historical or cultural. [49] :9–18

The 2018 report onthe restitution of African cultural heritage [74] is a prominent example regarding the decolonization of museums and other collections in France and the claims of African countries to regain artifacts illegally taken from their original cultural settings.

Since 1868, several monolithic human figures known as Moai have been removed from Easter Island and put in display in major Western museums such as the National Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Louvre and the Royal Museums of Art and History. Several demands have been made by Easter Island residents for the return of the Moai. [75] The figures are seen as ancestors and family or the soul by the Rapa Nui and hold deep cultural value to their people. [76] Other examples include the Gweagal Shield, thought to be a very significant shield taken from Botany Bay in April 1770 [77] or the Parthenon marble sculptures, which were taken from Greece by Lord Elgin in 1805. [78] Successive Greek governments have unsuccessfully petitioned for the return of the Parthenon marbles. [78] Another example among many others is the so-called Montezuma's headdress in the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, which is a source of dispute between Austria and Mexico. [79]

Laura Van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, United Kingdom, stated in 2020 that "ethnographic museums should redress their coloniality. They should be a pluriverse that shows the rich diversity of ways of being and knowing, not centering whiteness as the only way of being. Museums ought to allow for everyone to understand each other better." [80]

Labor issues and Unionization

Workers rallying at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Philadelphia Art Museum workers rally - April 1, 2022-001.jpg
Workers rallying at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The past few years has seen a unionizing movement. US museums workers have initiated dialogs about labor and collective organizing in the cultural sector. In 2019 the workers in multiple museums voted to form unions with more protesting to press for a fair contract and against unfair labor practices. [81] During that year over 3,000 cultural workers anonymously started to share their salaries online through an pay transparency spreadsheet. [82]

The Marciano Art Foundation, a museum established by co-founders of Guess clothing, Maurice Marciano and Paul Marciano closed indefinitely in November 2019 after workers attempted to unionize. [83] [84] The Marciano Foundation released a statement a month later that the closure was permanent. [85]

In the country of Georgia 40 employees were fired May 2022 as part of a restructuring. The newly formed union, the Georgian Trade Union of Science, Education, and Culture Workers said in a statement they said the employees were fired illegally and the reorganization was "carried out by the employer in an untransparent and maladministered manner" and that the organization will "definitely fight to the end to protect the rights of employees." Fired senior curator Maia Pataridze said the new management mentioned her social media posts criticizing the government. [86] [87] Among those fired was union chair, Nikoloz Tsikaridze, a senior researcher and archaeologist who associated the discharging of himself and other museum staff was for forming a union, and said that Thea Tsulukiani, the Georgia Minister of Culture had ‘punished’ them. [88] [89]


In the United States, labor unrest within the arts and cultural sector go back at lest nearly a century to 1933 when a New York based collective of artists eventually known as the Artist’s Union used collective bargaining for state relief for unemployed artists. [90]

In 1971 administrative staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art formed the organization "Professional and Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art" (PASTA), the first union of professional employees, as opposed to maintenance and service people, at a privately‐financed museum. The contract negotiated would provide a wage increase, protection against termination without cause, and direct access to trustees and policy-making processes at the museum. While there was some interest from workers at other museums at the time, for the next fifty years there was little change in museums adding union representation of their professional employees. [82] [91]

Sustainability and climate change

Increasingly museums have been responded to the ongoing climate crisis through enacting sustainable museum practices, and exhibitions highlighting the issues surrounding climate change and the Anthropocene.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Art museum</span> Building or space for the exhibition of art

An art museum or art gallery is a building or space for the display of art, usually from the museum's own collection. It might be in public or private ownership and may be accessible to all or have restrictions in place. Although primarily concerned with visual art, art museums are often used as a venue for other cultural exchanges and artistic activities, such as lectures, performance arts, music concerts, or poetry readings. Art museums also frequently host themed temporary exhibitions, which often include items on loan from other collections.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Royal Ontario Museum</span> Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is a museum of art, world culture and natural history in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It is one of the largest museums in North America and the largest in Canada. It attracts more than one million visitors every year, making the ROM the most-visited museum in Canada. The museum is north of Queen's Park, in the University of Toronto district, with its main entrance on Bloor Street West. Museum subway station is named after the ROM and, since a 2008 renovation, is decorated to resemble the institution's collection at the platform level.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Field Museum of Natural History</span> Natural history museum in Chicago, Illinois

The Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH), also known as The Field Museum, is a natural history museum in Chicago, Illinois, and is one of the largest such museums in the world. The museum is a popular natural-history museum for the size and quality of its educational and scientific programs, as well as due to its extensive scientific-specimen and artifact collections. The permanent exhibitions, which attract up to two million visitors annually, include fossils, current cultures from around the world, and interactive programming demonstrating today's urgent conservation needs. The museum is named in honor of its first major benefactor, the department-store magnate Marshall Field. The museum and its collections originated from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the artifacts displayed at the fair.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Curator</span> Content specialist charged with managing an institutions collections

A curator is a manager or overseer. When working with cultural organizations, a curator is typically a "collections curator" or an "exhibitions curator", and has multifaceted tasks dependent on the particular institution and its mission. In recent years the role of curator has evolved alongside the changing role of museums, and the term "curator" may designate the head of any given division. More recently, new kinds of curators have started to emerge: "community curators", "literary curators", "digital curators" and "biocurators".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National Museum of American History</span> Museum in Washington, D.C., United States

The National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center collects, preserves, and displays the heritage of the United States in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific, and military history. Among the items on display is the original Star-Spangled Banner. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and located on the National Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW in Washington, D.C.

The Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (PAMA) is a museum, art gallery, and archives for the Regional Municipality of Peel and are located in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Previously, it was the Peel Heritage Complex. Its facilities were originally the Peel County Courthouse, Brampton Jail, a land registry office, and a county administration building. It is opposite Gage Park and Brampton City Hall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Israel Museum</span> National museum of Israel in Jerusalem

The Israel Museum is an art and archaeological museum in Jerusalem. It was established in 1965 as Israel's largest and foremost cultural institution, and one of the world’s leading encyclopaedic museums. It is situated on a hill in the Givat Ram neighborhood of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Bible Lands Museum, the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Virtual museum</span> Museum in a digital format

A virtual museum is a digital entity that draws on the characteristics of a museum, in order to complement, enhance, or augment the museum experience through personalization, interactivity, and richness of content. Virtual museums can perform as the digital footprint of a physical museum, or can act independently, while maintaining the authoritative status as bestowed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in its definition of a museum. In tandem with the ICOM mission of a physical museum, the virtual museum is also committed to public access; to both the knowledge systems imbedded in the collections and the systematic, and coherent organization of their display, as well as to their long-term preservation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Collection (museum)</span> The group of objects owned by a museum

A museum is distinguished by a collection of often unique objects that forms the core of its activities for exhibitions, education, research, etc. This differentiates it from an archive or library, where the contents may be more paper-based, replaceable and less exhibition oriented, or a private collection of art formed by an individual, family or institution that may grant no public access. A museum normally has a collecting policy for new acquisitions, so only objects in certain categories and of a certain quality are accepted into the collection. The process by which an object is formally included in the collection is called accessioning and each object is given a unique accession number.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anchorage Museum</span> Museum in Alaska

The Anchorage Museum is a large art, history, ethnography, ecology and science museum located in a modern building in the heart of Anchorage, Alaska. It is dedicated to studying and exploring the land, peoples, art and history of Alaska.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Skirball Cultural Center</span>

The Skirball Cultural Center, founded in 1996, is a Jewish educational institution in Los Angeles, California. The center, named after philanthropist-couple Jack H. Skirball and Audrey Skirball-Kenis, features a museum with regularly changing exhibitions, film events, music and theater performances, comedy, family, literary and cultural programs. The campus includes a museum, a performing arts center, conference halls, classrooms, libraries, courtyards, gardens, and a café. Although the center has its roots in Jewish culture, it is open to individuals of all ages and cultures.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Children's museum</span>

Children's museums are institutions that provide exhibits and programs to stimulate informal learning experiences for children. In contrast with traditional museums that typically have a hands-off policy regarding exhibits, children's museums feature interactive exhibits that are designed to be manipulated by children. The theory behind such exhibits is that activity can be as educational as instruction, especially in early childhood. Most children's museums are nonprofit organizations, and many are run by volunteers or by very small professional staffs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arizona State Museum</span> Museum in Arizona, United States

The Arizona State Museum (ASM), founded in 1893, was originally a repository for the collection and protection of archaeological resources. Today, however, ASM stores artifacts, exhibits them and provides education and research opportunities. It was formed by authority of the Arizona Territorial Legislature. The museum is operated by the University of Arizona, and is located on the university campus in Tucson.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Staten Island Museum</span> General interest museum in New York, United States

Staten Island Museum is Staten Island’s oldest cultural institution, and the only remaining general interest museum in New York City.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Idaho Museum of Natural History</span> Natural history museum in Idaho, United States

The Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH) is the official state natural history museum of Idaho, located on the campus of Idaho State University (ISU) in Pocatello. Founded in 1934, it has collections in anthropology, vertebrate paleontology, earth science, and the life sciences. Additionally, it contains an archive of documents and ethnographic photographs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Exhibition</span> Organized presentation and display of a selection of items or pictures

An exhibition, in the most general sense, is an organized presentation and display of a selection of items. In practice, exhibitions usually occur within a cultural or educational setting such as a museum, art gallery, park, library, exhibition hall, or World's fairs. Exhibitions can include many things such as art in both major museums and smaller galleries, interpretive exhibitions, natural history museums and history museums, and also varieties such as more commercially focused exhibitions and trade fairs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Museum informatics</span>

Museum informatics is an interdisciplinary field of study that refers to the theory and application of informatics by museums. It represents a convergence of culture, digital technology, and information science. In the context of the digital age facilitating growing commonalities across museums, libraries and archives, its place in academe has grown substantially and also has connections with digital humanities.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">African art in Western collections</span>

Some African objects had been collected by Europeans for centuries, and there had been industries producing some types, especially carvings in ivory, for European markets in some coastal regions. Between 1890 and 1918 the volume of objects greatly increased as Western colonial expansion in Africa led to the removal of many pieces of sub-Saharan African art that were subsequently brought to Europe and displayed. These objects entered the collections of natural history museums, art museums and private collections in Europe and the United States. About 90% of Africa's cultural heritage is believed to be located in Europe, according to French art historians.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mount maker</span>

A mount maker is responsible for the creation of structures called object mounts used to provide unobtrusive physical support, stability, and security of objects while on display, in storage, or being transported to museums, art galleries, libraries, archives, botanical gardens or other cultural institutions. Protection and long-term conservation of the object is a key goal of mount makers. This is accomplished through careful design, selection of materials and manufacturing process that will not inadvertently harm the object, and a cautious installation process of the object into its place in an exhibit. Professionals in this field can be employed directly by an institution, be independent contractors, or work as part of larger cultural institution exhibit design firms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Museums in Paris</span>

The 136 museums in the city of Paris display many historical, scientific, and archeological artifacts from around the world, covering diverse and unique topics including fashion, theater, sports, cosmetics, and the culinary arts.


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Further reading