History Of Museum Artifacts History Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Some objects in museums before become a part of respected institutions very often belong to private collections. The great example of a museum with such a history is The British National Museum. The following description of the historical development of museums is not an exact history of the British National Museum. The example of this museum is used only to highlight some similarities between a general history of museums and the history of the National British Museum and its collection.

The British Museum was founded in 1753 as the first national museum in the world and aimed to encompass all fields of knowledge. The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane, who was also a President of the Royal Society. His collection consisted of huge amount of curiosities, books, antiquities and manuscripts and natural history specimens clearly reflected his scientific interests and the curiosity of the eighteenth- century Enlightenment. In total it was about 70 000 objects of all kinds from many distant places. The Foundation Act added two other libraries to the original collection of Sir Hans Sloane. The addition of the manuscripts from Cotton and Harleian library introduced a literary aspect to the collection. The Act also set up a body of Trustees to control the institution. They chose the Montagu House in Great Russell Street as the location for the museum. The ground floor of the Museum's first home was reserved for books, maps and drawing, the first floor was divided between manuscripts, medals and coins and natural and artificial productions. This division is a reflection of Museum's first departments. The British Museum was founded as a 'universal museum' in every sense and had private collections as its foundations. Over 250 years of its existence, the British Museum has changed and gave birth to many other institutions: National Portrait Gallery, British Library, and Natural History Museum.

This transition from private collection to organized institution open for the public is not only the part of the history of the National British Museum but also can be seen as stage in development of museums in general. View hundred years ago it was natural that only elites had access to precious collections and the privilege of viewing private trophies was restricted to a few people (M. Ames 1992: 16). But people start thinking about the past and its artifacts as valuable quite early, but the establishment of museums is a completely different story. Many events and period are described as crucial for the development of modern museums. Mainly scholars focus on enlightenment thinking, new discoveries, and establishing new nation- states as elements which worked in favor of creating first modern museums.

Earlier in 15th and 16th century we can talk about 'proto- museums'. Proto- museums existed mainly in the form of cabinets of curiosities or private collections. Gathered curiosities were appreciated but very often not as antiquities or products of past civilizations but rather as the marvelous of a present Golden Age. Very often objects were prized simply because of their rarity and oddness. (Clifford :) .They were shared with others selectively by the collector. Possessing a cabinet was a sign of being learned and wealthy man (Walsh 1995: 18). Visits were conducted privately and the issue of educating the public did not arise. Olmi describes the Medici Palace, which she considers to be the 'first museum of Europe' (in a form of a private collection) as "constituted for the sole benefit of the family who owned it", "not only did the creation and enrichment of a museum constitute an occupation worthy of a nobleman; they were also means of acquiring renown and prestige and of turning the owner's home into an almost obligatory sight for everyone" (quoted in Walsh 1995: 19).Collecting had become a very respectable profession. Humanist scholars and their patrons gradually more favored the museum as a key site for a wide range of enlightening endeavors. Setting aside a room or series of rooms in their houses or palaces, they filled them to capacity with objects- books, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures etc. No object was too trivial to be excluded from the Renaissance collection. Most of the collections were entirely private, but some enjoyed regular visits from princes or scholars. By the end of the Renaissance, the museum had become a standard feature of the cultural itinerary of any learned person, giving collectors enormous status in the society.

People became more interested in past in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The idea of progress, role of history were new but quickly became very important. C. B Macpherson talks about the emergence of "possessive individualism". He means that people see accumulating goods as a kind of personal development (Clifford). Walsh describes it as a period of 'discovery' of historical perspective. (Walsh 1995: 9). Collections were not an accumulation of strange objects but objects were valued as examples of systematic categories (Clifford :227). There was a certain kind of classification within collection, but descriptions of objects were very different from what we might find today. Henrietta Lidchi gives us the example of John Tradescant and his collection. His "collection of rarities" (later expanded and transformed in to museum) contained many different objects. They were divided into two groups: natural and artificial. Both categories contained many diverse objects. This simple distinction can be regarded as typical. (Lidchi :56). This simple division is a very early attempt to classify collected materials. It is also the time of the emergence of museums as public service. These institutionalized collections have their place between private collections and modern museums. The example of that is the Royal Society, which opened its museum in 1666 (Walsh 1995: 20). Another example is of course the foundation of the British Museum, which can be considered as one of the most potent acts of the Enlightenment. Hans Sloane was born in 1660 and fit in to the trend of assembling goods. He gathered an enviable collection of curiosities and wanted his collection to exist after his death. He wrote: 'being fully convinced that nothing tends more to raise our ideas of the power, wisdom, goodness, providence, and other perfections of the Deity … than the enlargement of our knowledge in the works of nature, I do will and desire that for the promoting of these noble ends, the glory of God, and the good of man, my collection in all its branches may be, if possible kept and preserved together whole' ( quoted in Sloan and Burnett 2003: 14) In order to achieve that he bequeathed it to the nation in 1753. Year later the Montagu House was purchased to house the entire collection. Finally on 15th January 1759 the museum opened to the public. The opening of the British Museum was the expression of Enlightenment ideas. These ideas were crucial for the development of our present understanding of past and distant centuries. In the end of 18th and the beginning of the 19th century is the time when the British Museum started to display its collection of antiquities to reflect human artistic progress and stress on change over periods of time (Sloan and Burnett 2003: 110). Of course, it was only first attempt and perfect progressive sequence was not fully achieved.


Very important time in the development of museums is 19th century (the time of industrial revolution with its roots in 17th and 18th century) which brought also demands for more accessible education. The 19th century museum can be seen as one of the emblematic institutions of the modern period. Its task was to produce and disseminate an authoritative knowledge. Public access to collections of art or cultural artifacts started to be seen as necessary for communicating knowledge. Museums could give possibilities for self- education and self- elevation. Bowles says that it was not only industrial progress but 'also an age dominated by fascination with the past' (quoted in Walsh 1995: 11). Foucault also claims that museums and the whole idea of collecting and preserving artifacts is very modern. In his essay 'Of Other Spaces' he writes 'the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity' (Foucault 1986: 26)

This general interest in the past influenced by the new idea of progress was closely related to industrialization and institutionalization of many services. These were some of the causes why many private collections or royal cabinets became property of museums. Creating museums is part of the institutionalization of knowledge (Walsh 1995: 27). This is described by Giddens as a part of a larger process of 'disembedding' (Giddens 1990). It works by moving social relations from local context to expert systems, or in other words distancing people from the local. (Walsh 1995: 27). We follow M. Ames (M. Ames 1992: 20) in stating that private collections should be identified with the owner and his point of view of the world and not seen as belonging to the public. This is where lies the importance of establishing museums which treat private collections as common good. As Belk would summarize that: private collection remains the collection after owner cease to own it, and museum in this scenario is the curator who is the recent owner of the collection. But the very nature of the collection is changed. Cameron states (quoted in M. Ames 1992: 21)

"it was no longer being said that this was someone else's collection that you, the visitor, could look at. Rather, it was being said that this was your collection and therefore it should be meaningful to you, the visitor".

What Walsh calls 'museums boom' took place in the second half of the nineteenth century. In most cases emergence of museums during or after the industrial revolution came together with the emergence of a museum profession. It became very important that representations of the must be ordered. Collections or objects form the cabinets of curiosities were examined and classified. Museums contribute0d to a conception of understanding time and linear progression. Displays were very often organized to reflect progress and development in time. The categorization and establishing the belonging of the object is another characteristic of a modern museums. In the National British Museum the categorization of objects started a bit earlier. Since its opening the collection was growing. The increasing importance of the antiquities collection was recognized quite early and resulted with the establishment of a separate Antiquities Department in 1807. Only year later the Townley Gallery was opened as a house for all Classical and Egyptian Materials. Another step was made in 1836 when the Department of Print and Drawings was created. In 1860 the Department of Antiquities was divided into three sections: Roman, Greek and European materials. Very often classification automatically provided the principles of display layout. The continuing growth of the collection called for another drastic change in 1880s, when the Natural History collections became separated unit and were moved to South Kensington. This became the Natural History Museum. A person who was responsible for some of these changes was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, appointed to the Museum in 1851.

This grouping and describing of artifacts was the part of general trend in the ninetieth century. This scientific approach was something new and gave a new status to collected objects. Artifacts from the cabinets of curiosities were not funny or bizarre items anymore but became subjects of scientific examination and valuable cultural or religious symbols. (M. Ames 1992: 17). Objects were contextualized and given a different value. They were seen first of all as a source of information. The same happened in libraries. Until 19th century there were no classification schemes in libraries. Of course some sections in the library were assigned to particular subjects, but it was very broad system of arrangement. There was no need for a precise arrangement system because libraries operated on the basis of closed access. Readers could not go to the shelves and look for books themselves. Situation has changed at the end of 19th century when visitors were permitted to browse among the stock. The Reading Room bin the Library in British Museum had been thrown open to all for a short period at the time of its opening in May 1857, thereafter admission was by pass only, giving access to its collections an aura of selectivity and exclusiveness. Since the libraries moved toward the open access there was a need for new way of organizing the collection of books (Broughton 2004:5). It became necessary to arrange books by subject to help visitors to find what they look for. Classification became the essential tool in the process of organizing collection of books or artifacts in museums.

The change in approach towards artifacts is typical for the nineteenth century museums and happened even before museums became freely accessible to everybody. But to understand the attitude toward the opening museums for public in the past we should look at the British Museum in London (number of visitors in British Museum increased from around 5 000 a year in the 18th century to nearly 6 million today).

It opened to the public on 15th January1759 (M. Ames 1992: 18). From the beginning it granted free admission to all 'all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the (collections) … that the same may be rendered as useful as possible, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons' (quoted in Sloan and Burnett 2004: 14)' .This statement did not mean much in practice. Archie Key (quoted in M. Ames 1992: 19) described the procedure before thirty minutes tour.

" personal application was made to the porter at his lodge who inscribed in the register the name, condition (drunk, sober, clean, dirty, seemingly of means or otherwise) after which the librarian or his understudy decided whether the applicant was 'proper' for admission , 'and until … the solution being the affirmative… either of those officials issued an invitation, the prospective visitor had no more chance of getting inside the museum than Satan has of eluding the vigilance of St. Peter.'"

It was equally difficult to enter private museums for people without a 'proper appearance'. Bogaart (quoted in M. Ames 1992:29) gives the example of the notice by the owner of the private museum which appeared in the London newspaper in 1773.

"This is to inform the public that being tired out with the insolence of the common people who I have hitherto indulged with a sight of my museum, I am now come to resolution of refusing admittance to the lower class except they come provided with a ticket from some gentleman or lady of my acquaintance."

Over time, the role of the museum as a public asset became increasingly important. Regulations were changed gradually over many years and finally museums became fully democratizatied. There were many changes in the focus and character of museums. As museums became public and open for everyone they also started being seen as places where visitors can compare their own perceptions with what is considered as objective and correct perception of reality (M. Ames 1992: 21). Visitors in museums do not tend to think about presented artifact as telling the story or making statements about its owner, but rather as mediums presenting a proper and approved way of understanding history and reality. Cameron in his paper 'The Museum, a Temple or the Forum' claims that museums are very often perceived as temples (quoted in M. Ames 1992: 21)

"Those segments of society with the power to do so … created museums that were the temples within which they enshrined those things they held to be significant and valuable. The public generally accepted the idea that if it was in the museum, it was not only real but represented a standard of excellence. If the museum said that this and that was so, then that was a statement of truth."

This was the case only because of making museums public property. Nationalization of the museums changed peoples' attitude towards presented artifacts. They were not just curiosities belonging to somebody else- private collector, but they were important to people, nation in a direct and personal way. They were meaningful because belonged to the public.

The 20th century was the century of a great expansion of the National British museum. Library which was created together with the museum itself was constantly expanding. Over the period of two hundred years, the British Museum Library had grown into one of the largest in the world, mainly supported by its privilege of legal deposit whereby it was entitled to a copy of most text printed in the United Kingdom - not only books and periodicals, but also newspapers, maps and printed music. In 1828 the Library received most generous donation in its whole history. The Library of George III was donated to the British Museum. It is called the 'King's Library'.In 1973 departments of Manuscripts and oriental Printed Books, Manuscripts, Printed Books which used to be a part of the Museum became part of a new organization, the British Library. It remained physically at the Museum for many years. In 1997 the books were moved to the new location at St Pancras

Bennet Tony

1995 The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge

Broughton Vanda

2004 Essential Classification. London: Facet Publishing

Clifford James

The Predicament of Culture

Foucault, Michael

1986 Of Other Spaces, Diacritics, Spring

Harris P. R

1998 A History of the British Museum Library 1753- 1973. London: The British Library Board

Lidchi Henrietta

The Poetics and the Politics of Exhibiting Other Cultures

M. Ames Michael

1992 Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes, The Anthropology of Museums. Vancouver: UBC Press, 3- 24

Sloan Kim, Burnett Andrew

2003 Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteen Century. London: The British Museum Press