Out of Egypt: A Brief History of Museums
Posted on May 12, 2017 by Kimberly Roblin in From the Archives
Louvre and Tuileries Gardens. 19220.127.116.11.1121. Carl Link Collection, Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
The calendar is not out-of-date. It is out of dates. Literally. Prone to excess and eager to celebrate, we have earmarked every day for a profession, an individual, a discovery, an anything. Some I fully support. Pie? I’m from Oklahoma. Absolutely. Pi? Sure. I appreciate all things infinite. Slinkys? That’s a stretch—pun intended. Necessity even forces some honorees into a timeshare. May 18th is both National Cheese Soufflé Day. Yes, really. And International Museum Day.
Museums are familiar to all of us because there are so many. A 2014 federal study reported 35,000 in the United States, a figure that Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post contextualized: there are more museums in this country than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. Supersized culture. I’m loving it. Despite their prevalence, however, we rarely consider museums as a whole. They are keepers and interpreters of history, but what of their own? It is a family tree far older than you might imagine. The origins of our Museum and every other lie not in the United States or even Europe, but in the sands of ancient Egypt. Intrigued? Let’s take a brief look at their lineage.
Out of Egypt—More than 3,000 years ago Akhenaten ruled Egypt. The 18th Dynasty pharaoh changed religion, art, and politics. He also created a library of the tributes and gifts he received from his subjects. Intended for private use only, it was the first organizationally stored collection—a building block of modern museums. His successor and likely son, Tutankhamun (King Tut), reversed the revolutionary reforms and returned Egypt to its former state. Akhenaten’s changes might not have been permanent, but his place in museum history is.
House of Muses—When Alexander the Great died without an heir in 323 BC, his generals divided the empire. Ptolemy became ruler of Egypt and established a long line of Greek pharaohs, including his direct descendant Cleopatra. In Alexandria, he launched an exclusive research institute dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and called it house of muses, or museion. Sound familiar?
First Collection—During the Middle Ages many Catholic churches began acquiring relics, textiles, and manuscripts relevant to the history of Christianity. Clergy maintained the collections, however, and parishioners rarely saw the items.
Commerce and Columbus—Museum collections as we think of them emerged during the 16th and 17th centuries for two reasons.
Commerce created tremendous affluence among the merchant class. As families accrued wealth, they accrued large collections of Roman, Greek, and European art. Think Florence and the Medicis. These collections are now the foundation of many European museums.
Christopher Columbus ignited an age of exploration when he stumbled upon the Bahamas in 1492. For the next two centuries Spanish, English, French, and Dutch ships sailed across the Atlantic to explore and exploit this “New World.” They returned with exotic specimens and samples that found their way into private collections. Owners displayed them in “cabinets of curiosity”—the oddball uncles of the museum family. Well-intentioned, but eccentric and somewhat scattered.
Let them See Art—Predictably, revolutions revolutionized museums. Founders of early American museums, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1786), wanted theirs to be public and open—a sharp contrast to their exclusive European counterparts. They’d already discarded monarchy—why not the museum model?
A few years later the French Revolution generated the world’s most famous museum—the Louvre. The former royal residence opened to the public in 1793. What once represented wealth and privilege became symbolic of the new republic. Art was not strictly for the elite. It was for everyone.
The Patron and the Public—Public museums in the United States and abroad greatly increased during the 19th Funded primarily through wealthy individuals, museums enjoyed popularity as they staged exhibitions and expositions. As museum numbers grew, people began to contemplate and question the role of museums in their communities.
Community Service—People continued to question this involvement for several decades and it was not until the 1960s that the model began to change. As counter-culture railed against the establishment, museums sought to shake the public perceptions associated with them. They actively reached out to their communities, primarily through school programs and broadly appealing exhibitions. Corporations and foundations also became significant sources of funding and forged another link with the community. The efforts continue today with unprecedented collaboration between museums and communities.
Museums differ in appearance, age, attitude, location, interest, and more, but relatives are never identical. They do share certain traits, however. The organized collections of Akhenaten. Ptolemy’s pursuit of knowledge. The equal access of the Louvre. If you know where and how to look, you can see the family resemblance.
Happy International Museum Day from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum! Click here to learn more about our Museums’ history.
Experience a cabinet of curiosity, exhibition style, next February with Unlocking the Vault: Mysteries and Marvels of the Museum. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see some of the more unusual and interesting objects from our collection.