A Short History of Museums

A Short History of Museums

How did museums come to be? Nowadays they are a familiar part of the urban landscape, but it was not always the case. We do not presume to retrace the entire history of the concept of museum, but we hope to interest you in a few landmarks!

Our journey starts in 3rd century BC Egypt, at the ‘Mouseion’ or ‘Musaeum’ of Alexandria. The ‘Mouseion’, which translates as ‘Seat of the Muses’, did not host any works of art! It was a comprehensive intellectual environment (school, library) and a haven for artists and thinkers of all disciplines, and people eager to learn from them – all in all, something like our universities.

Let us then introduce you to the famous Muses, from whose name the modern word of ‘museum’ derives. They are said to be the daughters of Greek god Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory. There are 9 Muses; each of them supports and inspires the aspiring artists in her discipline: Calliope in epic poetry, Clio in history, Euterpe in music, singing and lyric poetry, Erato in love poetry, Melpomene in tragedy, Polyhymnia in the composition of hymns, Terpsichore in dancing, Thalia in comedy and Urania in astronomy.

Birth of the Muses, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1856; Louvre Museum, France; watercolor on paper
Birth of the Muses, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1856; Louvre Museum, France; watercolor on paper

In the Early Modern period, the term ‘museum’ began to be applied to private collections and ‘curiosity cabinets’ amassed by monarchs, members of the nobility, and the Church. These series of precious objects were not accessible to the public who could only fantasize about them; they were an indicator of wealth and education. The Medici family in Florence for instance, collected an incalculable number of artefacts and artworks as well as commissioning private family portraits (there were no cameras yet!). The Medici were the first family to donate their private collection to the state, in 1743. Some of their paintings were already on public display since 1582 in the Palazzo degli Uffizi, which would then become the Uffizi Gallery Museum, one of the most well-known public institutions in the world.

Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, Bronzino, 1560; Uffizi Gallery, Italy; tempera on panel
Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, Bronzino, 1560; Uffizi Gallery, Italy; tempera on panel
Cabinet of Curiosities, Domenico Remps, ca. 1690; Central Library of the National Museum of Natural History, Paris
Cabinet of Curiosities, Domenico Remps, ca. 1690; Central Library of the National Museum of Natural History, Paris

From the 17th century onwards, the process accelerated as the public began to demand wider access to artworks: art was progressively becoming a fundamental need for populations.

English collector John Tradescant’s ‘curiosity cabinet’ thus formed the basis for what was to become the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, in 1683. It was the first time that a building was erected specifically to the purpose of hosting art. It was subsequently opened to the public.

More thinkers began to design projects for national museums, and at the end of the 18th century, two of the biggest museums were born, which we still visit today: the British Museum in 1759 and the Louvre in 1793, whose creation was the result of a revolutionary decree which stipulated that the Grande Galerie of the royal palace be opened to the people in order to show the rich property confiscated from the clergy and the aristocracy.

In the decades that followed, Napoleon, who believed in the ideal of a universal museum, kept enriching the Louvre’s collections with art seized during his conquests. The Emperor pictured himself as the great liberator of oppressed civilisations, and wanted to centralise the wonders of art from everywhere in the world, for everybody to see.

The 19th century came to be known as the ‘Museum Age’, seeing how museums proliferated across the world according to the impulse of civic pride and a freer education. The Vatican in Rome opened some of its collections to the public; the trend spread to the New World and to colonial empires, with multiple institutions opening in the United States, South America, South Africa, India, and Australia. At the different times of independence, the presence of a museum in capital cities often helped construct and define national identities (such as the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago, Chile, which was built to commemorate the centennial of Chilean independence in 1910).

The creation of museums testifies to the movement of both art and history, and to the beginning of a process of cultural democratisation that is still on-going today. As the world changed socially and politically, museums were established for instance in former royal palaces, showcasing the general need to make art special and enhancing its symbolism.

Hermitage Museum, Catherine the Great, 1764; Saint Petersburg, Russia
Hermitage Museum, Catherine the Great, 1764; Saint Petersburg, Russia
Heydar Aliyev Center, 2007; Baku, Azerbaijan
Heydar Aliyev Center, 2007; Baku, Azerbaijan

Designing buildings for museums has since become an art in itself, as today’s architectural feats show. Here is the Heydar Aliyev Center (2012) in Baku, Azerbaijan, an intellectual environment home to a museum, a conference hall and much more. It was designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

Before it came to designate a building, the term ‘museum’ conveyed a sentiment of comprehensiveness. As we saw, it was first used to describe a community of people brought under one roof to appreciate and share or debate their appreciation of different forms of art.

At UMA, we wish to rehabilitate this feeling of community and work for the democratisation of art by using the significantly advanced technologies at our disposal. Let’s return to the dream of the universal museum, shared by Alexander the Great and Napoleon, and make it happen with the tools of the present.

Let’s bring together all the artworks across the world, and contrast them in infinite configurations.

Let’s build our own museum.

Let’s make it free and accessible to anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

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