What Was the First Museum?

Since when do we put our history in public places for the world to visit against a little fee? You go to the museum to learn about the past, but it occurred to me recently that museums are now a creation of the past and I didn’t know why they were created in the first place.

What Is The Meaning of a Museum?

It was in ancient Greece that the word “museum” first appeared. Its origins can be traced back to the Ancient Greek word “mouseion,” which referred to a location or temple honoring the nine Greek mythological Muses, goddesses of the humanities and sciences. Music, poetry, dancing, and philosophy were just a few of the intellectual endeavors that the Muses were thought to protect and inspire.

A mouseion was once a meeting place for intellectuals, poets, and philosophers to engage in intellectual discourse and idea exchange. These locations started to accumulate collections of antiquities, natural specimens, and other items with artistic, cultural, or historical value throughout time. Due to their associations with the Muses, the quest for knowledge, and inspiration, these early collections came to be known as museums.

While we all have a pretty good idea of what is a museum, it turns out that there is no single universally accepted definition of a museum. However, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) provides a widely recognized definition:

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.”

Like Paddington, go visit The Natural History Museum

What Was the First Museum Officially Created?

While the concept of a museum has evolved significantly over the centuries, It was during the 15th century that the term “museum” was first used in the way we are still using it today. But back then, it was used to describe collections from which access was often private and limited to the elite. One notable early collection was that of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence.

In the 17th century, the idea of a museum began to change. Collections like Ole Worm’s in Copenhagen and John Tradescant’s in Lambeth were referred to as museums, but they primarily showcased curiosities. When John Tradescant’s collection was acquired by Elias Ashmole in 1677, it was moved to the University of Oxford and opened to the public in 1683. This marked the establishment of the Ashmolean Museum, which is considered the first museum open to the public that held the name “museum.”

It signified a shift from private collections to a public institution dedicated to the preservation, study, and display of objects.

During the Renaissance, wealthy Italians developed a passion for collecting classical and ancient art and artifacts. European royal families also amassed collections, occasionally opening them to the public. The scientific revolution of the 17th century further transformed museums into centers for research in the natural sciences.

A Museum For All

Government-sponsored public education through museums started with the opening of the British Museum to the general public in 1759.

In France, the Louvre became the first public museum in 1793, during the French Revolution. It provided free access to the former royal collections for people of all social statuses. The Louvre and subsequent museums played a crucial role in nationalistic fervor and cultural preservation.

The idea of museums spread to other parts of the world, including China and Japan. Chinese and Japanese visitors to European museums in the 19th century struggled to find equivalent terms for them in their own languages. Eventually, the term “museum” was adopted, reflecting the influence and fascination these visitors had with Western museum institutions.

If you’re in London, go visit the Victoria and Albert Museum to learn about the Origins of the First Christmas Card!

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