History of Museums: A Look at The Learning Institutions Through Time

Explore the history of museums in this brief but complete guide. Read on for how the museum has evolved from past to present and into the future.

Oct 13, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
metropolitan museum of art
Interior of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York photographed by Liza Rusalskaya, via Unsplash


The history of museums is a long one. The existence of Homo Sapiens is linked with art and art is a way of linking people with other people. In addition, the desire to create and share what is created is closely affiliated with the desire to collect. The creator, the collector, the viewer, and the artwork are all parts of one equation, and the museum is the blackboard on which it is written. 


Museums today are diverse but we can all roughly understand what makes a museum: exhibiting, collecting, preserving, and researching humanity’s cultural heritage. With this in mind, we are ready to explore the history of museums. Our narration will start with prehistoric cave paintings, go through historical, scientific, and art museums, reach the 21st century, and end with a prediction for the future.


Before The History Of Museums: Prehistory

altamira paleolithic cave art yvon fruneau
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain by Yvon Fruneau, 2008, via UNESCO


It is possible to trace the first point in the history of museums back to the prehistoric period. Cave paintings such as in Altamira involved basic elements of exhibiting art. 


This public display of artistic creation and its symbolism could have had a variety of functions. Above all, however, it could have created a sense of commonness amongst the community sharing the space. This common visual art would only be one aspect of a common culture and heritage of these early civilizations. Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario. 


Classical Antiquity

the muses jacopo tintoretto
The Muses by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1578, via Royal Collection Trust, London

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The English word ‘museum’ has its origins in ancient Greece. The Greek word (Μουσεῖον) referred to sites devoted to the cult of the nine Muses (patron deities of the arts). With time, the word came to describe a place devoted to the study of art and finally gained its current meaning. 


In Classical antiquity, art was displayed everywhere; from public temples and buildings to houses of wealthy individuals. During the 5th century BCE on the Propylaia of the Athenian Acropolis one could visit the pinacotheke; a public exhibition of paintings on various religious themes. 


Furthermore, Panhellenic sanctuaries like the ones in Delphi and Olympia were filled with art of every form. In many ways, these sanctuaries were the ancient predecessors of the museum. Visitors from all parts of the Greek world visited and experienced the exhibited art. Much like national museums, these spaces played a major part in fashioning a common cultural and religious identity while promoting ideas of Greekness. 


The museum-like spaces of the Greek antiquity did not seek to rationally categorize and exhibit their collections. Besides, these were not systematic collections in the modern sense. For these reasons, they were not museums in the modern use of the word.


At the time, art was inseparable from religion as well as daily life. In contrast, the modern museum tends to do the exact opposite. It tends to ‘musealize’ objects, i.e. take them out of their original context and see them as isolated from their historical conditions. In short, a modern museum is a space where an object becomes an artwork by simply being exhibited.


Aristotle And The Lyceum

bust aristotle palazzo altemps
Bust of Aristotle, Roman copy after Lysippos, after 330 BCE, in the National Roman Museum, Palazzo Altemps


In the 340s BCE, the Greek philosopher traveled to the island of Lesbos with his disciple Theophrastus. There, they collected, studied, and classified botanical specimens setting the fundaments of empirical methodology. In this way, the concept of a systematic collection – a prerequisite for the modern museum – was created. For this reason, many argue that the history of museums begins with Aristotle.


Aristotle’s philosophical school/community of philosophers was the Lyceum. The school, located in Athens, contained a mouseion. This was the first place where a collection was linked with research in the form of the study of biology. The mouseion also included a library indicating its close relationship with learning. 


Mouseion Of Alexandria

great library alexandria
The Great Library of Alexandria by O. Von Corven, 19th Century, from Don Heinrich Tolzmann, Alfred Hessel and Reuben Peiss, The Memory of Mankind, 2001, via UNC School of Information and Library Science, Chapel Hill


A direct successor to Lyceum’s mouseion was the Mouseion of Alexandria. Ptolemy Soter founded it as a research institute around 280 BCE. Like the Lyceum, it was a community of scholars both academic and religious, organized around a shrine to the Muses. 


An organic part of the mouseion was the library of Alexandria, mostly known for its enormous collection of books; the largest in antiquity. It is possible that the Alexandrians also collected other objects (botanical and zoological specimens).


Museums In Ancient Rome

colosseum rome
The Colosseum in Rome photographed by Davi Pimentel, via Pexels


The expansionism that turned Rome from a city-state into a vast empire brought a great influx of art. Looted statues and paintings from every corner of the empire found their place as decoration in Roman public architecture


The Greek sculptures, now found everywhere in the city of Rome, created an unprecedented effect. In the words of art-historian Jerome Pollitt, “Rome became a museum of Greek art.


This was the first-time art was used for purely decorative/aesthetic purposes out of its religious context. This was the beginning of the division between religion and art.


Next to the public display of art for power projection, there was also a private form of exhibiting and collecting. Wealthy members of the Roman elite collected artworks and displayed them in their Pinakothecae (picture galleries). These were rooms filled with paintings and/or painted walls. Although they were inside private residencies, they were publicly accessible. Through a Pinakothece, the owner hoped to accumulate prestige and gain the esteem of his fellow citizens.


Art Renewal In The Renaissance 

jonathan korner
Florence photographed by Jonathan Körner, via Unsplash 


During the Renaissance, scholars became fascinated with classical antiquity. With the renewed interest in the philosophy of Aristotle arrived a familiarization with empirical methodology. At first, this entailed the collection of specimens from nature and their study. Very quickly it evolved into collections of objects from all around Europe. 


The most outstanding Renaissance collection of antiquities was that of Cosimo de’ Medici in 15th century Florence. Cosimo’s descendants kept growing the collection until it was bequeathed to the public in the 18th century. 


Nevertheless, in 1582, a floor in Uffizi palace – filled with paintings of the Medici family – opened to the public. 


The Cabinet Of Curiosities 

cabinet collector frans francken the younger
The Cabinet of a Collector by Frans Francken The Younger, 1617, via Royal Collection Trust, London


The age of the explorers and the opening of the new world to Europeans broadened the scope of collections. Collectors – mainly amateurs and scholars – stored their acquisitions in cabinets, drawers, cases, and others. As time passed, every new collection was more systematic and ordered than the previous one. 


These collections became known under different names throughout Europe. In English, they were most commonly called Cabinets of Curiosities.


By the 17th century, the Cabinets of Curiosities would also be called museums. The term was first used to describe the collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici during the 15th century. This was the conscious choice of scholars deeply invested in the study of classical antiquity and the Alexandrine tradition.


chamber art curiosities frans francken
Chamber of Art and Curiosities by Frans Francken the Younger, 1636, via Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Both artificalia (man-made objects) and naturalia (natural made objects/specimens) were included in the cabinets with little distinction. The artificalia (usually coins, medals, and other small objects) were used to facilitate antiquarian studies. The naturalia were used for the promotion of “natural sciences.”  Many times Curiosities Cabinets attempted to create a replica of reality in miniature.


Parallel to the Cabinets of Curiosities were the gallerias. There, collectors exhibited collections of sculpture and/or painting. Although the cabinet of curiosities was a means towards accumulating prestige, the gallerias were more important in that regard. Especially Greek and Roman sculpture was considered of higher importance and was an asset for every ruler. Naturally, the galleria was also called as museo.


Enlightenment And 18th Century Museums


The history of museums may not begin with the Enlightenment but it is a product of the Age of Reason. 


John Tradescant (1570-1638), a British naturalist, had created a large collection of artifacts and natural specimens. After facing financial hardships, Tradescant sold his collection to Elias Ashmole who had already a considerable collection of his own. Finally, Ashmole (1617-1692) donated his collection to the University of Oxford in 1675. 


ashmolean museum oxford
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford photographed by Lewis Clarke, via Geograph


This collection became the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum, the first university museum. The Ashmolean included a laboratory and its main goals were the preservation of the collection and the promotion of natural sciences and research.


The Ashmolean was also the first public museum because it was publicly accessible. Visitors paid an entrance fee and entered the museum one by one, where they were shown through the collection by a keeper. Unlike a Cabinet of Curiosities, the Ashmolean laid claim to a rational form of collecting and organizing its collection. Thus, it was a real museum in the modern sense.


During 18th century Europe, a series of private collections began opening to the public and taking the shape of a museum. The British Museum was established in 1753, the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel opened in 1779, while the Uffizi in Florence became available to the public in 1743. European capitals and monarchs were now competing in a race to establish their museums. By the first decades of the 19th century, the museum was a well-established institution.


Museums at this point remained closely related to scholarly research and learning. However, they were mostly tools in a game of power between Europe’s monarchs. A great collection was an effective way of projecting power. It was also a way of declaring the cultural supremacy of a state as embodied by its monarch.  


The Louvre: The Royal Collection

pyramid louvre museums
The Pyramid at The Louvre Museum, Paris photographed by Jean-Pierre Lescourret, 2016, via Smithsonian Magazine 


Perhaps the most important event in the history of museums occurred in 18th century France. 


In 1793, the Revolutionary government nationalized the King’s property and declared The Louvre palace a public institution under the name Museum Francais. It had already become an art museum of the royal art collection when King Luis XIV moved to the Versailles.


For the first time, the royal collection was available for all to see. The people of Paris entered and roamed in the first truly public museum in history. At the same time, the Louvre became the first truly national museum. The museum did not belong to any king or any member of the aristocracy. As the National Committee declared, this was the property of the people of France; a monument to the glory of the French nation and its history. 


Worth noting is that the Louvre was open to the people and free of charge, in contrast to its preceding museums. As part of the government’s education program, the Louvre aimed at ‘civilizing’ the citizens. This was not a new tendency. The museums discussed in the previous section had similar goals. However, the Louvre was the first museum to express this ideal so effectively.


Museums And Nationalism

liberty leading people eugene delacroix
Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, 1830, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


It is no coincidence that the modern museum appears at the same time with imperialism and nationalism. The national museum had the power to convert the treasures and luxuries of the monarchy into the treasured heritage of the nation. After The Louvre, every nation aspiring to be respected sought to represent itself through a national museum. Thus, museums became part of a nation’s struggle to understand, shape, and promote itself.


In general, the museum was only one of the institutions (e.g. universities) that the modern state saw as important for the civilizing process of its body of citizens. The idea was that by looking at ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ art, the citizens would also become virtuous and good. From that point forward, the museum would be an institution able to shape the value system of the public. What is more, state art museums would become proof of a state’s political virtue and/or superiority.


Art Museums and the US

metropolitan museum of art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Ave, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 


While large public museums were taking over Europe, things were different on the other side of the Atlantic. Museums in America were not publicly owned (except for the Smithsonian founded in 1846). 


Instead, they rose out of initiatives of private citizens who created groups to amass collections and founding museums. Especially in the 19th century, a new class of wealthy individuals spends lavish amounts to acquire pieces of art and other objects to establish their social status and increase their influence. 


During the 1870s and 1880s, a series of museums rose as non-profit, non-governmental institutions. Notable examples include the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Detroit Institute of Arts


The history of museums took a unique turn in the US favoring a specific museum-type: art museums. There are many interpretations as to why Americans went after art museums with such dedication. However, that is not that important at the moment. What matters is that it was in America that modern art museums rose as spaces for the display of art. In contrast with other museum types, art museums place the aesthetic value of the object above all. This aesthetic function supposedly occurs unaidedly after the visitor experiences the art exhibited. 


After The 20th Century

georges pompidou center paris
Georges Pompidou Center photographed by Nicolas Janberg, 2012, via Structurae


Throughout the 20th century, museums became more and more diverse. Science museums, natural history museums, art museums, and history museums were established as different museum types and then they were divided into further subcategories. Museums began abandoning traditional forms of exhibiting art and went after the ‘modern.’ This modern ideal found expression in museum architecture, interior design, exhibition planning, and of course, art.


Especially in the industrial world, museums kept functioning within clear colonial, national, and imperial narratives. A series of movements that followed the end of the second world war attempted to understand these narratives and eventually replace them. These movements did not only attack abstract issues of ideology but also traced them in the way museums were organized and built. The modern and traditional museum modes of being came under scrutiny in favor of new postmodern ideologies. From the architecture of the building down to the writing of a label, museums attempted to change. By the end of the 20th century, two things were apparent; the first was that little real change had occurred and the second was that more change was needed. 


The 21st century brought with it a renewed enthusiasm. Museum professionals have since become more open to change and large institutions are slowly recognizing parts of their dark past. Will this history of museums keep moving towards that direction or will museums revert to their old ways? This is left for the future to tell.


Future History Of Museums 

teamlab borderless tokyo
teamLab Borderless Installation at Aomi Station, Odaiba, Tokyo, 2020, via teamLab Borderless’ Website


The history of museums is not over. The museum of the early 21st century is already different from the museum of the late 20th.  


The 2020 coronavirus pandemic forced the museum world into the digital age. Museum collections are becoming available online. Meanwhile, museums rediscover the power of social media in an attempt to maintain a relationship with their audience. Virtual tours, online exhibitions… digital museums are making their appearance.  


We can safely assume that the future of the museum is digital. Of course, physical museums will not disappear but they will certainly benefit from immersive, 3D, and other new technologies. Especially art museums experiment more and more with the digital as artists find inspiration in new media. Overall, the online presence of a museum is slowly but steadily becoming as important as its physical. 


black lives matter brooklyn museum
Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Brooklyn Museum, 2020, via GQ


Furthermore, museums are far beyond their age of innocence. As decolonization, anti-racism, LGBTQIA+, and other social movements are rising, museums are forced to confront their idol in the mirror. Through this process, new museum identities become manifest. Museum professionals now frequently use words like democratic, participatory, open, and accessible to describe their vision of the future. 


Will museums move towards an increasingly more active social role or will they accept a position of political neutrality? Will they move towards a closer financial relationship with the state, their respective communities, or private companies and the market? These are important questions that are almost impossible to answer for the time being. 


There is only one prediction we can make with absolute certainty, museums will change.


Suggested Further Reading

  • Jeffrey Abt. 2011. ‘The Origins of the Public Museum’. In A Companion to Museum Studies edited by Sharon Macdonald. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.



Author Image

By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.