History of the Institution
A conventional museum is a building or group of buildings devoted to the collection, preservation, and exhibition of the most important symbols and achievements of the human race and the dynamics of the natural world. It showcases the best artistic, cultural and scientific pursuits of various civilizations through the centuries. Today, though museums have acquired a multi-faceted role in cultural and environmental preservation, it was not always so.
Early museums were primitive collections of privileged individuals, who did not always make them available to the public.The first private collections of artifacts have been found in burial sites dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Period (40,000 to 10.000 years ago).
Evidence of inquiry about nature and the neighbourhood by hominids of this time can be seen in cave paintings and portable art forms.
British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley to whom we owe much of our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamia, discovered certain objects in the 6th century B.C. strata of the excavation at the Babylonian city of Ur. They were objects that seemed to be interpretations of some earlier original work, which represented the development of an idea towards a museum.These antiquities were among the personal collections of the Babylonian kings Nebuchadrezzar (A.K.A. Nebuchadnezzar II, who is credited with building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon) and Nabonidus. Woolley also unearthed a collection of exhibits in a room next to a temple school run by Ennigaldi-Nana, daughter of Nabonidus, who was also a priestess. A tablet was also found, which described certain inscriptions of 21st century B.C., which makes it the earliest-known museum label and suggests that the priestess had a small educational museum on the temple premises.
The word museum is derived from the Greek mouseion, which meant “seat of the Muses”. These were philosophical institutions or a venue of social discourse.
In ancient Greece and Rome, offerings to the gods were housed in temple treasuries, and included works of art, natural curiosities and exotic items from foreign cultures. The collections were normally open to the public for a small fee.
The Greek pinakotheke was established on the Acropolis at Athens in the 5th century B.C. It housed paintings honouring their ancient gods. But the term mouseion did not apply to these buildings.Religion and veneration of the past also led to the collection of objects in other parts of the world. The earliest Chinese collections go back to the Shang dynasty (circa mid-16th to mid11th B.C.).
Simultaneously in Africa, collections were housed in wayside shrines and were an important part of religious ceremonies. In Japan, the 8th century Todai temple at Nara housed a colossal bronze statue of the seated Daibutsu or Great Buddha. Other treasures can still be seen at the temple’s Shoso-in repository. At around the same time, Islamic communities were housing collections of antiquities and relics at the tomb of the early martyrs.
The concept of wakf entailed donation of private property for religious purposes and pubic good also resulted in the assimilation of historic collections.In Europe, objects of art were frequently commissioned by popes and kings and housed in churches and palaces. In 15th century Europe, the term museum first came to describe the private collection of Florence’s most powerful man, Lorenzo de’ Medici. Still, the term referred to the vast collection of artifacts and did not denote a particular building. It was not until 1675, when a famous collection of antiquities in London became the property of the University of Oxford. A building was specially constructed to house the collection, which became open to the public in 1683 as the Ashmolean Museum.
The 17th century also saw the establishment of learned societies to promote business, arts and the sciences, prominent among which were the Royal Society of London and the Academy of Sciences in Paris. These learned societies contributed much to the formation of the museum as an institution. By studying the artifacts they understood the historical and contemporary importance of these collections and propagated the knowledge.Increasing interest in antiquities led to development of archeology, with the launch of several important excavations in the 19th century.
The diggings unearthed never-before seen objects of immense historical significance, which further enhanced the prestige of museums. These are the excavations, which brought all the ancient civilizations to life and gave us our pre-historical heritage. Many of these have been converted to living museums.
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