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History Of Museums

British Museum

Museums are a recent invention, and there have been some writers who look upon the modern vogue for museums as a failure of confidence in the future. Filippo Marinetti made his feelings quite clear when he wrote his Futurist Manifesto in 1909: "Museums: cemeteries!... identical surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another." (Quoted Tate Modern The Handbook ed Iwona Blazwick and Simon Wilson P29)

But although museums are new, the collection and display of prized objects has a long history. From ancient times people have collected objects thought to have special powers. Effigies of gods, relics of saints, and skulls of deceased ancestors are among the objects that have been collected and ritually displayed. Carol Duncan writing in the Oxford History of Western Art feels there is a direct link between these collections and modern museum displays: "Many collections, be they of bones or oil paintings, are thought to align the present with a mythic or idealised past" (P404). There are, however, important differences between the past and present in the way objects are displayed. In Western Europe it is perhaps with religious relics that we see these differences most strongly. Religious relics were kept in special boxes called reliquaries. Reliquaries from the later Roman period were entirely closed. Later in medieval Europe reliquaries usually revealed part of the relic they contained, through a glass or crystal window. Even when relics were available to view in this way, most were kept in private chapels, and only brought out on feast days. Restriction of view was, therefore, an important element of relic keeping. This no doubt added to the mystique of what even in medieval England were sometimes viewed as highly dubious objects. An inventory of "relics" kept at Canterbury Cathedral in the fourteenth and fifteenth century includes: "Aaron's rod...Some of the stone upon which the Lord stood when He ascended into heaven. Some of the Lord's table upon which He made the Supper. Some of the prison whence the Angel of the Lord snatched the blessed Apostle Peter. Some wool which Mary the Virgin had woven. Some of the oak upon which Abraham climbed to see the Lord. And some of the clay out of which God fashioned Adam." (Knighton's Chronicle - Quoted in Who Murdered Chaucer by Terry Jones P 194). Clearly it was important that people did not look too closely at these objects! In modern museums objects became a focus of study. There may be some restriction of access for security reasons, but having a clear view of the object will be important. Many museums have researchers who will be looking closely at objects in terms of what they can learn from them. This is a fundamental difference from the past, and coincides with a change to a scientific world view.



National Gallery

The advent of museums is closely linked with the development of science. A collector of geological and zoological specimens, Elias Ashmole, founded Britain's first university museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford in 1683. His original collection included a stuffed Dodo, the last surviving specimen in Europe. Meanwhile, in 1662, an informal group of scientists calling themselves the Invisible College formed the Royal Society. The Society became a focus for collections of scientific artifacts, which in 1781 became the core collection of the early British Museum. The British Museum had itself been created by amateur naturalist Hans Sloane, first at two houses in Bloomsbury Place. His gentleman's collection of artifacts was bequeathed to George II, who on 7th of June 1753 formally established the British Museum as the first independent national museum. There was now a slowly growing trend for public access to collections of prized objects. Following the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century, the Louvre Palace was opened to the public, allowing general access to a vast royal collection of art treasures. The Louvre thus became the world's first public art museum. Ironically the Louvre's opening as a museum slowed development of similar museums in Britain. The collapse of French revolutionary ideals into brutality resulted in Britain becoming wary of anything which seemed reminiscent of what happened in France. It was only in 1824 that Britain opened its own national art museum, the National Gallery, and it was many decades before funding and political support allowed the National Gallery to even begin to rival the Louvre.

The advent of science and a more equal society created early museums, and it was the advance of industrial society that led to the next stage of museum building. In 1851 Britain held its Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, to demonstrate the technical expertise of Britain and its Empire. While huge crowds were making the Exhibition a popular success, industry observers were comparing British goods on display with those from abroad and found them wanting. A year after the Great Exhibition, the Museum of Manufacturers was founded by civil servant, designer and writer Henry Cole. Using a collection acquired mainly from the Great Exhibition, the new museum's aim was to promote art and design, and to contribute to improvement of British products. Displays were directed towards educating students, artisans and manufacturers, as well as general visitors. Although this utilitarian aim was soon toned down, a marked improvement in design during the 1850s encouraged other countries to set up similar institutions. By 1890 almost every European capital had acquired its own Museum of Manufacturers. Germany had about thirty! The Museum of Manufacturers, called the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1899, represented a crucial stage in the development of modern industrial society.



Natural History Museum

The V&A was one of a group of three museums, and a university college, built in South Kensington. All of these institutions represented scientific revolution. The Natural History Museum, opening in 1881, displayed ancient objects from Earth's four and a half thousand million year history, and revealed a new way of looking at the world. The Science Museum, founded in 1885, was dedicated to charting scientific and industrial development, while the V&A refocused on decorative art. Imperial College, opening in 1907, quickly gained a reputation as one of Britain's finest technology institutions. Recalling Filippo Marinetti's comment about museums as a failure of confidence in the future, it now seems clear that museums are in fact the product of modernity, of a scientific world view, and of the development of a modern egalitarian society. Naturally developments were uneven. For some reason, museum development in the United States tended to be linked with privilege to a much greater extent than in Europe. The practice of "granting millionaire donors their own space" became a feature of American museums (see Oxford History of Western Art P405). Nevertheless the eventual and inevitable trend was towards public access and research. By 1937 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation had been formed for the "promotion and encouragement and education in art and the enlightenment of the public". There are now countless museums collecting all kinds of objects, but essentially they represent a desire to look at things, and to make them available for anyone to look at.