The origin of…Museum

“Give me a museum and I’ll fill it.” Pablo Picasso

Post 45 Museum

Ancient Greeks first built a temple to the Muses, goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences, and called it a mouseion. A mouseion was not like we know a museum today, an institution that conserves a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and shows them to the public. Rather, it was a philosophical school and library, the home of music or poetry. Scholars lived in the mouseion and they conducted research, lectured and collected literature.

Many museums began as the private collections of wealthy people or institutions. The oldest of this type of museum known is Ennigaldi-Nanna´s Museum, from ca 530 BC, in modern day Iraq, which held Mesopotamian antiquities. Ennigaldi was Nabonidus´ daughter, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
Private collections showed in what were called cabinets of curiosities or wonder rooms and were open only to “the respectable”. The word museum was revived in the 15th century to describe the collection of Lorenzo de´ Medici in Florence. Many private collections of the Renaissance were symbols of social prestige and acted as an important part in the traditions of the nobility. Over time, though, new collectors became more concerned with study and the advancement of knowledge and the continuity of their collections, so they turned to the public domain. The first recorded occurrence of a public institution that received a private collection happened in 1523 when the brothers Domenico Cardinal Grimani and Antonio Grimani donated their collection to the Venetian Republic.

The first “public” museums were not that public and were usually only meant for the middle and upper classes. For example, if one wanted to visit the British Museum, opened in 1759, one had to apply for admission in writing and only small groups were allowed in the galleries. For this reason, many consider the Ashmolean Museum, at the University of Oxford, to be the first modern public museum. The collection was a gift from Elias Ashmole and the museum opened in 1863.
The first public museum in the United States was the Peale Museum, which opened its doors in 1786 in Philadelphia.

Most museums can be found in cities and the city with the largest number of museums is Mexico City with more than 128 museums.

Further reading:

a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public (source: Merriam Webster).

The English museum, Dutch museum, Spanish museo and Italian museo all come from Latin museum, library/study, from Greek mouseion, place of study/library/museum/school of art or poetry, originally a seat or shrine of the Muses, from Mousa, Muse (source:

Museum in other languages:
Dutch: museum
Spanish: el museo
Italian: il museo


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