The Roles of a Museum

The word museum conjures images of art galleries filled with masterpieces, history museums telling stories of our past, natural history museums with dinosaurs and other creatures, and science museums with the wonders of nature. The term can also be used to describe any building, collection, or object that is preserved and displayed in a public space, such as the Alamo, Giddings Stone Mansion, or Houston’s Emancipation Park. Some museums even exist outside of buildings, such as a historic site or military battleground, such as the Alamo Shrine in San Antonio, or the Fort Hood Museum of Texas History in Killeen.

Museums play many different roles in society, but the most important one is to inspire. Many visitors who visit museums seek out that inspirational experience, even though not all museums are able to deliver it fully. This inspiration can come in the form of awe and wonder at an object, or it can come from deep engagement with a subject matter.

There are many ways to inspire, but it requires a commitment to inclusion, community participation and sustainability, and a recognition of the need for diverse voices in museum collections and exhibitions. Museums must also rethink their role as gatekeepers of knowledge. In the future, they will need to be facilitators of conversations and collaborations between experts and non-experts alike.

The first role of a museum is to preserve and interpret the primary tangible evidence of humankind and its environment. This evidence is the raw material for study and research, and it is what distinguishes a museum from a library. The word museum itself is derived from the Greek word muzeum, meaning “a place for the display of curiosities.” Museums have long been referred to as places for curiosities, and the earliest museums were often large collections of objects, such as Ole Worm’s in Copenhagen or John Tradescant’s collection in Lambeth, now part of London’s Ashmolean Museum.

Some museums, like the Smithsonian, are dedicated to art, and have some of the largest and most famous paintings in the world. Others are focused on science and technology, with institutions such as the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Science Museum of Virginia being some of the best examples. Some museums focus on a specific region or time period, such as the National Museum of Natural History in Denver, or on a particular theme, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Museums often play an economic role by stimulating tourism and revitalizing communities. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, for example, was built as a way to rejuvenate an old port city.

Lastly, museums may serve as a cultural bridge between cultures and a platform for dialogue. This is especially true for art and natural history museums, but it is also an important function of many science museums as well. Museums are often seen as places that promote cultural understanding and tolerance, and can provide a forum for discussions about difficult issues, such as global warming or nuclear proliferation.