What is a Museum?


A museum is a building that houses a collection of artifacts, historical documents or natural history items. Most museums are open to the general public and have staff that curates and displays the collections. Museums often have research departments and education departments as well. Museums can be large with multiple facilities and collections or small with a single location and focus. There are many types of museums and they can be found all over the world.

Museums are a record of human culture and of our interaction with the natural world throughout time. They are like time capsules, and each one reveals how we have changed, in subtle ways or in dramatic ones. Museums preserve and present a record of the past so that we can learn from it and make wiser decisions about our future.

In its earliest forms, the museum probably developed as a response to humankind’s innate desire to collect and interpret. As early as the classical era, people collected objects that had religious, magical, economic, aesthetic or historical value. In the Greek and Roman empires votive offerings were often housed in temples or in special treasuries. In the 17th century, the term museum began to be used in Europe for large collections of curiosities — for example Ole Worm’s museum in Copenhagen or John Tradescant’s array at Lambeth (later the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford).

Museums have been established for a wide variety of purposes: as recreational facilities; as educational venues; to promote civic pride and nationalistic endeavor; to transmit overtly ideological concepts; and as repositories of scientific knowledge. The founders of museums have included lofty goals of public service in a specific field in their by-laws and charters. This diversity explains the many variations in museum form and content.

Despite this remarkably broad scope, all museums have several things in common. They are a place to keep, care for and display significant objects; they offer exhibitions and education programs; and they are a source of inspiration for all of us.

There are some specialized museums, such as archaeology and anthropology, fine arts, children’s museums, numismatics, botanical and zoological. However, most museums are devoted to the cultural or natural world and can be found all over the globe.

Although museum work involves a great deal of research, the curator’s role is to present an overview to the public that makes the objects and their contexts accessible and meaningful. This requires a deep understanding of the object, its place in society and the history of its collection. It also means interpreting how the object reflects its time and place, and its significance in our lives today. This interpretation takes the form of an exhibit or a public talk. It may also be presented in a publication or on a website. Museums are often a focal point for tourism in their cities and regions. As such, they are vital to local economies and contribute to the quality of life for their visitors.