Why did museums develop?

Figure 1. The so-called Lion of Babylon is likely to be a basalt statue showing an unfished lion attacking a man. The piece was likely recovered in Syria and brought to Babylon to be displayed in its royal museum.

Today we think of museums as areas that display the past, our culture, or natural history of our world. This certainly has developed to be the modern norm; however, when museums first developed they were for the private display of monarchs, showing war trophies and past societies. This evolution went further development in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, with the rise of intellectual wonder and development of social education.

Early Developments

The world's first museum known to us appears to be from Babylon, now in southern Iraq, found within the palace of king Nebuchadnezzar II, the well known king who sacked Jerusalem in the Bible (Figure 1).[1] Although some scholars claim the title of the first museum should be in the city of Ur, in the temple of Ennigaldi-Nanna, which did house ancient collections, this structure may date to a slightly later time than that of Nebuchadnezzar's displays.[2] During the Neo-Babylonian period (626-539 BC), there was interest in both the distant past, which by that time Mesopotamian urban complex societies were nearly 3000 years old, as well as capturing war booty from within the Empire as it expanded.

King Nabonidus, in fact, commissioned the first known archaeological excavations at the time to uncover ancient remains from Ur.[3] The idea or concept of these early commissioned excavations was to retrieve relics from the past that connected Babylonian civilization to the past, showing its long history, and bringing objects of the gods back to the world. The uncovered objects were then placed in a museum. In essence, the concept of the museum as a display of the origin of a people as well as of its power was developed. Early museum collections included ancient tablets, statues, and religious relics that would have been seen as continuing to have important relevance. The importance and continuity of ancient religion, in fact, was another motivation to develop museums, in this case within temple complexes.

Origin of the Word

Figure 2. An artist's reconstruction of the Musaeum.

The origin of the word museum derives from the Musaeum that once stood in ancient Alexandria in Egypt from around 300 BC and lasted as an institution through the Roman period. This original structure once contained the famous library of Alexandria. While many ancient works, in particular writings, were collected in this institution, its core focus was on education and research.[4]Lectures, presentations, and teaching were conducted here during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, where the museum becomes associated with scholarship and not just a place to have old relics. In essence, it was an institution that became comparable to our modern concepts of universities, where the museum was a place of research. Therefore, museums, early in their conceptual history, became places of education and discovery, while not being simply places that housed ancient objects for the sake of the objects alone. Utilizing the knowledge of the past, including from very distant cultures, became one of the key missions of the Musaeum. The collections included objects from Assyria, Babylonia, ancient Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere. This is also similar in concept to our modern research museums that both display ancient objects from around the world but also conduct scientific research.

Early Renaissance

After the Classical period, the idea of a museum seems to not be utilized very much, although studying ancient scholarship continued in the Near East for many centuries long after the fall of Rome. Therefore, the past was still seen as a source of knowledge, although we don't know much about formal museums. The two oldest continuous museums are found in Rome, the Capitoline and Vatican Museums. The former was essentially a collection of Roman sculptures gifted by Pope Sixtus IV. Discovery of sculptures also inspired the Vatican museum, as Pope Julius II was inspired by the discovery to preserve the pieces in the Vatican's collections.[5] This interest spawns an interest in the Classics in general and a rebirth of ideas and focus on the pre-Christian past.

Soon, objects began to be collected not just by officials or religious figures but by wealthy individuals. By the 16th century, a new era began, where large collections of artifacts were now collected for their sake, as interest in the past continued. In Europe, the so-called cabinets of curiosities began to be made, which were sometimes large private collections of ancient artifacts, fossils, or other remains that sparked interest in the past.[6] The interest in the past continued as the Renaissance gave way to the Age of Enlightenment, which now began scientific interests as well as simple curiosity to collect.

Birth of Modern Museums

By the 18th century, scientific progress and ever increasing knowledge about the world increased interest in creating large public galleries. Furthermore, similar to the interests of the Babylonian Empire, the new empires of the world, in particular Britain and later France in the late 18th century, began to see the collection of artifacts and objects as a way to display power and dominance in the globe. The British Museum was opened based on the principal it would be accessible to the public, although mostly it was the privy of the middle and upper classes, and it began to display the wonders of Britain's every increasing dominance and thus by extension reflect British superiority to the world.[7]

This trend continued into the 19th century, where the Louvre and British Museum began a type of competition to collect the best objects from natural and ancient history to show their respective state's prowess on the world stage. Soon, with the increasing collections, museums began to be divided into different types of museums, such as natural history and archaeology. However, it was only by the late 19th century were museums beginning to become more scientific in developing disciplines in studying ancient objects. With the advances made by Charles Darwin on the Theory of Evolution and archaeology becoming a more modern discipline led by Augustus Pitt-Rivers and Flinders Petrie do we see museums now retrieving objects with more care. The collections also now became more studied for greater insight into knowledge about the deep past, including the natural and human-made world.[8]


The development of museums was not a continuous path. After initial development in the ancient and classical worlds, at places such as Babylon and Alexandria, it took the Renaissance before interest in them begins again. However, it was only in the late 19th century do we see museums becoming more scientific and applying scientific principles in their collection of objects and their study.


  1. For more information on Nebuchadnezzar II's palace and his museum, see: Wiseman, D. J. 1991. Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon. The Schweich Lectures 1983. Oxford ; New York: Published for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press.
  2. For more on early museums, see: Walhimer, Mark. 2015. Museums 101. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pg. 6.
  3. For more on Nabonidus' excavations, see: Schnapp, Alain, Lothar von Falkenhausen, Peter N. Miller, and Tim Murray, eds. 2013. World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives. Issues & Debates. Los Angeles, California: Getty Research Institute, pg. 132.
  4. For more on the Musaeum and ancient Library at Alexandria, see: El-Abbadi, Mostafa. 1992. The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. 2nd ed., rev. Paris: Unesco/UNDP.
  5. For more on how Classical sculptors and their discovery spawned an interest in the past, including developing early museums in Rome, particularly Roman and Greek history, see: Haskell, Francis, and Nicholas Penny, eds. 1982. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500 - 1900. 2. print., (with corrections). New Haven London: Yale Univ. Press.
  6. For more on the so-called cabinets of curiosities popular in Rennaisance and early modern Europe, see: Mauriès, Patrick. 2011. Cabinets of Curiosities. New York: Thames & Hudson.
  7. For more on how large national museums played a role in colonialism, see: Aronsson, Peter, and Gabriella Elgenius, eds. 2014. National Museums and Nation-Building in Europe, 1750-2010: Mobilization and Legitimacy, Continuity and Change. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
  8. For more on the history of archaeology and how the Theory of Evolution and excavators such as Pitt-Rivers made it a well developed discipline, see: Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. 2008. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

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