Why We Have Museums
Created | Updated Jan 12, 2012
Since the very beginnings of humanity, we have felt the need to collect objects that have no intrinsic function or value, merely because we find them interesting. Like magpies, we're drawn to anything shiny, sparkly, different. Archaeological finds in caves in Hyène, France, include prehistoric curiosities like snail shells, stones that are unsuitable for making tools but have pretty colours, seashells, and even fossils collected by the resident cavemen.
The finding and hunting down of collectables can become a physical addiction, because curiosity and anticipation release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that works as a stimulant and gives us a natural high. It's a high that we want to keep experiencing, the thrill of the chase, and so we keep on hunting. But it's not just collecting these objects that makes us happy; it's having them, holding them, owning them, and exploring their mysteries. To do that, we need a place to keep them. Good thing we invented museums, isn't it?
What Makes a Collection?
Krzysztof Pomian, a French-Polish philosopher and art historian, defines a collection as a group of objects that is removed, temporarily or permanently, from the normal economic cycle. These objects are then stored in a place apart because they connect us to a world apart – such curiosities are not merely a sign of wealth or power, nor are they merely beautiful. According to Pomian, they are our connection to the invisible, to abstract concepts like nature, gods and heroes, people and places far away, long ago, or even in the future. He divides all objects into three categories: the useful, the worthless, and those without an immediate use whose value lies in their connection to the invisible. Pomian uses the term semiophores1 to describe these objects, placing them in a category of their own.
This is really just a fancy and complicated way of expressing what we all know instinctively when we look around our cluttered rooms – something doesn't have to be useful for us to want it. Why else would we adorn ourselves with soft metals that you can't turn into decent tools? It doesn't even have to be pretty - that drawing on your fridge might not be a masterpiece, but it is a good reminder of how cute little Tommy was when he was just learning to use crayons. See, a connection to the past!
The Museum Effect
Of course, these categories aren't fixed. One man's trash is another man's treasure – nobody but your mum is likely to see any value in that misshapen pot you made at summer camp when you were ten, but archaeologists are always digging up that kind of thing – often out of ancient rubbish pits – and putting it on display in museums. That's not because little shards of pottery are particularly valuable in and of themselves, but because they connect us to the invisible. We can study them to learn more about the past.
Some rather clever people can make this work for them and turn banal, everyday objects into something people are willing to pay a lot of money for – like Marcel Duchamp's 'readymades', everyday items like urinals that he signed and put into museums, thereby turning them into valuable objets d'art. Whether or not they are indeed 'art' is left to the critics to debate; that they are set apart from the mundane and transformed into semiophores is undeniable. By removing them from the normal economy, he was able to get people to pay a lot of money for them – and by exchanging money, quite a useful thing, for something now intrinsically useless, getting collectors to sacrifice some of their wealth for its sake, he elevated them to a visible symbol of wealth and power and an invisible connection to the abstract concept of art. Clever, no?
Of course, this happens the other way round all the time. If nobody knows the deeper meaning of an otherwise banal object, it won't be recognised as anything particularly valuable. Take, for example, Joseph Beuys' Badewanne2, part of a travelling exhibition owned by the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, which was on loan to Schloss Morsbroich in 1973. Art critics and others in the know would have recognised it as a profound statement on something or other, but to the ladies of the women's chapter of the SPD3, it was just something they could've used as a drinks cooler, if only it weren't full of disgusting dirty bandages. They scrubbed it, and returned it from its brief spell as 'art' to a mere bathtub, if a far less crusty and more useful one.
Artists like Duchamp and Beuys are putting to good use the 'museum effect', the so-called 'Voice of Institutional Authority'. Want to know what's art? Go to a museum! Want to know whether your coin is really an ancient artefact? Ask a curator! Even if it wasn't art, or it wasn't valuable, or it simply wasn't true before it entered the museum, the moment it goes on display, it's part of a collection, so it becomes a part of the third category. To avoid any more bathtub-scrubbing, this is usually explained by documents, plaques, or guides showing us how exactly how each object is connected to the invisible, be it through famous names or far-off dates.
That's where the word 'authenticity' comes in, and why it's so important. Not only do museum ethics dictate telling the visitor when an object is only a replica, they're also fairly strict about what can be done if something does break. Renovations and restorations to return something to its original condition are usually considered taboo. Karl-Heinrich Müller, founder of the Museum Insel Hombroich, says that this would be like a facelift, erasing all the little signs of an object's long life. The original artistic vision might be regained, but other connections to the invisible will be destroyed, its connection to history erased, and what is passed on to the next generation is, essentially, a lie.
Museums – a Timeline
The role of a museum then is threefold: to collect objects; to keep them safe and preserve them for future generations; and to display and interpret them. A jumble of dusty old things knocking about in an attic with no explanation of where they came from is more likely to be seen as junk than as a collection. Conserving objects and displaying them are really polar opposites, because exposing something to the environment – to light, to heat, to insects, to thieves – is to risk its destruction. But more or less public display is still the primary and most important function of a museum. The history of the museum is also a history of knowledge; how accessible collections were to the man on the street tells us how accessible education and knowledge were in each society.
The Treasure Houses of Antiquity
The first formal museums weren't purpose-built, they were rooms attached to other buildings. And the collections weren't collected for the sake of collecting, they were, like so much of our culture, a by-product of religion. Of course, we know that the ancient Greeks and Romans were mad about statues, inlaid floors, and painted walls – but declaring their houses museums because they were decorated would be like calling your dentist's waiting room a gallery because he has some prints up on the walls.
The first collections to be displayed belonged to the gods. Even the word 'museum' is an indication of this – it comes from the ancient Greek Mouseion, meaning 'temple of the Muses'. Greek gods were like children, and loved their shiny toys, so their followers gave them new things to make them happy or to thank them for victories in war. Each temple collected sacrifices, be they valuable jewellery, fine tapestries or curiosities from exotic lands. They couldn't be sold on – that would be considered sacrilege – but they didn't just lie around gathering dust, either, because the ancient Greek city-states soon discovered that they could really impress the others by having the best collection of sacrifices around. For a while, carrying the better things around in parades was considered enough, but fairly soon, the temples hired extra guards and threw open the doors of their treasure houses to pilgrims passing by, inventing not only the museum but the tourists to go with it.
Visitors did flock to the temples in droves – under the pretence of paying their respects to the gods – to admire the statues and jewels, captured enemy weapons and successful generals' armour and other objects on display. Then they went home and told their friends about them, and perhaps brought their own sacrifices to add to the impressive collections. Space soon became an issue, so eventually dedicated buildings like the treasure house at Olympia were built. To keep track of what they had, the priests started keeping inventories, which, in turn, were studied by scholars looking for objects worthy of their time and attention. The Romans used a similar system; Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, a summary of the knowledge of his time, was researched in part at the Concordia Temple in the Forum Romanum.
No collection lasts forever, though, and those of antiquity were no exception. They were stolen by enemies, used to fill the city's coffers, or even just lost or damaged. Broken statues and vases were often formally buried so they wouldn't offend the gods – only to be dug up by us and put back on display in museums.
The Treasuries of Medieval Churches
The Middle Ages, too, saw the most valuable collections in the hands of the church – or in the hands of laymen wanting to draw on religious authority. Unlike the opulent treasure houses of antiquity, however, the most valuable items were no longer those dedicated to God and used in religious ceremonies. Of course, the Catholic church has always owned its fair share of silver candlesticks and embroidered robes, gilt books and richly carved altars, but the most valuable objects were those with a direct connection to the saints: relics.
These were not unknown to the ancients – the Spartan general Pausanias mentions seeing 'the mud from which Prometheus made the first woman, the stone Kronos devoured in place of his son, and the egg from which Castor and Pollux were hatched' – but were regarded more as curiosities than as the important symbols of power they became in the Middle Ages.
To own part of a saint – a scrap of his clothing, a splinter of his bone, or even an entire hand – meant that one was under the protection of that saint and had his blessing. In the deeply religious and superstitious Middle Ages, this was a high road to power. A place that housed a holy relic was considered holy in itself, so founding a cathedral or monastery required a relic, which was housed in its own special shrine and carried in processions. But pilgrims also came to see them where they rested in the church, because they were said to miraculously cure all kinds of ailments. The spaces around them were soon filled with further treasures donated by those wanting the favour of the saints, souvenirs from pilgrimages and crusades, and similar demonstrations of the power of the church – all on public display.
But relics also had a definite influence on political and worldly affairs. Many a ruler used them to shore up his power – Charlemagne, for example, owned stones from the grave of Jesus, from the Mount of Olives and Calvary, and splinters of the cross and the manger. The loss of an important relic caused irreparable damage to a nation, so they were jealously guarded and only rarely changed hands. Lesser relics, however, were so popular that a local cynic describes the cemeteries around Rome as quarries for the relic trader. Though there were attempts to prove the authenticity of the 'real' relics with letters of provenance, this again demonstrates how easy it is for an object to change from rubbish to artefact.
From Curiosity Cabinet to Wunderkammer
Collecting other objects was initially almost a side effect. Monasteries were the main centres of study and learning for the European Middle Ages – books were copied and libraries created, philosophy and theology were debated, chronicles were written and art, history, and even medicine were studied – and things that had nothing to do with religion were kept around merely because they were interesting.
The gentry, too, started to fill their houses with art and natural curiosities that had neither religious nor monetary value. Starting in the 14th Century, studying and collecting antique statues, coins, and inscriptions became fashionable, and by the 17th Century, these curiosity cabinets had developed into full-blown Wunderkammern, a German term often erroneously conflated with curiosity cabinets because it has no equivalent in English. (Literally, it means 'chamber of wonders'4.)
These private collections were usually housed in the residences of their owners – spanning several cabinets to several rooms, depending on size. Their primary purpose was to allow the owners and select scholars to study the objects in peace, like the private libraries gaining in popularity at the same time. However, they also conferred bragging rights, and viewing a well-ordered private museum of exotic treasures was a popular pastime when visiting.
Descriptive Natural History
The creation of the Wunderkammer is the turning point in the development of today's museum. To understand how it goes an important step beyond the curiosity cabinet, a mere collection of interesting things, it is necessary to understand how their creators saw the concept of history. This can be confusing, because while the term natural history has been in use since the days of Pliny the Elder, it means something entirely different than we're used to. Rather than today's understanding of history as a work in progress, as something developing and changing, it was intended as a complete description of the way things are.
It's hard for us to wrap our modern brains around – we're fascinated with what went before – but our ancestors didn't realise that the past was any different from the present. They assumed we lived in an everlasting now. Just look at Medieval and Renaissance paintings – though biblical and historical scenes were popular motifs, the figures are always wearing the fashion of the painter's time and moving through the landscapes with which he was familiar.
This has, to our modern eyes, some very curious consequences. Medieval and Renaissance scholars believed that to study one object – or a small selection of carefully chosen objects – would allow one to extrapolate the whole of the Universe from it, because each thing had its single, specific place in the natural order. It's not that we've only recently developed the concept of time – our ancestors were well aware that there were people before them and that there would be people after them. But that things changed over time, that progress was made, simply didn't occur to anyone. Nature – meaning the entire world and the behaviour of everything in it – was seen as God-given and unchangeable. That's why, when the skulls of long-extinct pygmy elephants were discovered in Sicily, Medieval scholars drew scientific reconstructions of the cyclopses they must have belonged to. After all, there were no elephants there, let alone teeny-tiny ones, but everyone knew that those dangerous waters held islands full of mythical creatures. The opening for the trunk was interpreted as an eye socket.
This static world view only changed when the Enlightenment encouraged rational thinking over belief. In 1775, Immanuel Kant demanded a different view of natural history: We commonly use the terms natural history and description of nature interchangeably. But it is obvious that we should also wish to know what it was and through which series of changes it became what it is today.
Rooms Stuffed to Overflowing
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves - we're still a few centuries earlier, where Wunderkammern are just emerging. Theoretically, anything can be a Wunderkammer, even the random detritus you find in your pocket at the end of the day. But if you're going to devote your time to studying a mere handful of things, they might as well be nice things. Today's museums are like the family photos hung in a corridor at home, an ordered gallery documenting the lives of the occupants. A Wunderkammer is more like a child's bedroom, with an eclectic collection arranged according to criteria not obvious to the rational adult, and items kept for no apparent reason.
These items were divided into four categories: Nature, Antique Sculpture, Art, and Machines, the study of each of which had a profound impact on society.
The Nature category encompassed things like fossils, crystals, and exotic animals, but especially the exceptions and flukes of nature. John Tradescant, founder of the Musaeum Tradescantianum, wrote to the Secretary of the English Navy in 1625, requesting curiosities from Barbados, the Caribbean, and Newfoundland. His wish list encompasses things like snakes with rooster combs, glowing stones, the head of an elephant, and concludes that he'd also quite like 'Any thing that Is strang [sic]' The discovery and exploration of the Americas in the late Renaissance ensured a steady supply of never-before-seen natural wonders. This included naturalia like shells, new kinds of stone, and plants, but also man-made items like fabrics, jewellery, costumes, masks, and idols – provided they were created by strange cultures, which were not considered 'civilised'.
Antique sculptures were generally considered fossils, because they were found underground. They were seen as the link between Man and Nature, but had a profound impact on society because they also linked man to his own past. Starting in the 14th Century, humanists, artists, architects and scholars began to regard the coins, ruined buildings, statues and other artefacts as more than mere curiosities, and studied them in earnest. Their forms were explored, copied, and glorified, and the objects linked to long-forgotten manuscripts, with quite spectacular consequences. As the realisation slowly dawned that there had been something else before, that many revered relics were in fact representations of other, older gods, the concept of religion as something eternal and unchanging started to be questioned. When the works of ancient, heathen scholars like Aristotle were finally taught in universities, the church lost its monopoly on the 'right way' of thinking.
Much of the newer art, both paintings and sculptures, drew on inspiration from antiquity and nature. But it was also an important tool with which to demonstrate one's rank, money, and status. The rich and powerful commissioned portraits of themselves almost as a way to grant themselves immortality, to leave their mark on the world. Their props and poses linked them with history, science, and mythology – a veritable network of invisible connections. This is the time of great artists and their sponsors. A notable art collection conferred status upon its owners, so many didn't particularly care what they collected, as long as it was art, and showrooms often reflected the fashion of the times more than their owner's personal taste.
The scientific instruments that were used as props in portraits to show how well travelled and knowledgeable their subjects were – telescopes, globes, callipers and compasses – were also collected to further one's own studies. They were important status symbols. Their popularity was only superseded by that of the mainstay of the machine category, clockwork automatons. These early analogue robots were able to write, play chess, perform calculations and mimic life in myriad ways. More than mere toys, they were an expression of a new self-awareness, a reflection of the changing role of man in respect to nature5. Connecting modern man to the tradition of Daidalos and Prometheus, they showed that people were no longer content with 'mimicking' nature; they wanted to improve on it and even create new life, or at least the illusion thereof. No longer content with being the work of a Creator, man wanted to create for himself.
Of course, these proto-museums weren't the orderly temples to learning that we're used to now. It was a time well before Linnaeus' taxonomic system, when things that looked similar were deemed to belong together, regardless of any actual connection. Collections were commonly arranged according to the type of material from which an object was fashioned, since material was still considered more valuable than the workmanship to shape it6. Others used even more arbitrary arrangements – the anatomical museum in Leiden, for example, displays two apples that have grown together next to a pair of preserved Siamese twins, a two-headed cat and a lizard with two tails. Some simply grouped their material according to aesthetic or even moralistic ideals. The anatomy lecture hall at the University of Leiden was decorated with skeletons from which medical students could learn about the bones of the human body, but they were arranged into fanciful tableaux. The skeleton of an executed cattle thief rode through the halls on the skeleton of an ox, and a tree of life in one corner hung over the skeletal remains of a woman offering an apple to a long-dead male.
The Road to Public Museums
Many Wunderkammern became famous and were specifically sought out by visitors, and their creators began competing for the best display. John Tradescant's Musaeum Tradescantianum was housed in his primary residence, The Ark in London. When Willum, the son of Ole Worm, curator of the Wormianum in Copenhagen, sent his father a letter with a glowing account of the wonders of the Tradescantianum, Worm senior wrote back that 'I have heard that he was an Idiot [sic]'.
But it wasn't only the idle rich that worked on their collections – many doctors and pharmacists, often also the scientists of their day, threw open the doors to their private chambers to show their specimens artfully arranged. Not necessarily tastefully, though - Frederik Ruysch, a Dutch physician, was noted for his allegorical scenes composed from the skeletons of infants.
Not everyone wants masses of visitors trampling through their front rooms, so museums began to be housed in more public buildings. Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest who is considered the last polymath7, housed his collection, the Museum Kircherianum, in the Collegium Romanum in Rome. He collected and curated the oddities and exotic souvenirs that his brothers in faith brought back from their missionary work in faraway places, and made them accessible to any scholars who cared to study them. Likewise, the influential Medici family opened up their vast art collection at least to the better-educated members of the public, displaying it in the Galleria8 of the Palazzo degli Uffizi, the heart of their business empire in Florence.
When Baroque Europe finally came up with the novel concept of allowing everyone to get an education, many private museums were turned over to the state or other public bodies. The Franckesche Stiftung in Halle an der Saale was donated to an orphanage at the end of the 17th Century, where it was to be used for educational purposes. In 1683, Elias Ashmole9 donated his antiquities and curiosities - including virtually the entire collection of the Tradescants - to Oxford University, along with the funds for a new building to house it, a chemistry laboratory, and lecture halls. Anna Maria Luisa de Medici gave the Medicis' vast collections to the Tuscan state in 1743, under the condition that they be opened to the public. The world's first truly public museum is considered to be the British Museum in London, created in 1753. It included the personal Wunderkammer of the physician, scientist, and collector Sir Hans Sloane, but also encompassed a number of paintings and numerous artefacts brought back from faraway lands like China and America. For the first time, they were grouped by scientific, taxonomic criteria. Shortly after, the Fridericianum was opened in Kassel in 1779, housed in the first purpose-built museum building the world had ever seen.
On the cusp of the 19th Century, science as we know it today was starting to establish itself and soon considered the curiosity cabinets and Wunderkammern to be disordered, meaningless collections of junk, their attempt to explain the whole world through a select handful of items obsolete. At first, they were merely split into art and natural history collections, but zealous researchers were soon sorting them into ever more precise categories. Czar Peter the Great's Seven Academic Museums in St Petersburg were considered an ideal to which others should aspire, comprising museums for Ethnography10, Asiatic Art, Egyptology, Botany, Zoology, Anatomy, Numismatics11 and Mineralogy. This trend has continued until today, with many museum collections growing ever more specific, geared toward everything from individual artists and television series to toys and even wine or chocolate. The Museum of Museums exhibit in the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, finally, is an exhibit on museology, showing us the changing way in which things are displayed throughout the ages.
A Whole New Type of Building
Like the advent of the railroad, which led to the development of the railway station, the creation of public museums required the invention of a whole new type of building. Each specialty had its own requirements – while art museums needed well-lit rooms with lots of walls for hanging things, natural history museums had to be geared toward large shelves and showcases. Because the buildings were no longer visited by a single family and their guests, but by crowds of people, they also needed wide staircases and vast halls, as well as a way to protect the exhibits against accidental damage and theft.
The first architect to develop this new typology was Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose Altes Museum12 in Berlin was the prototype for the many that followed. But not only the arrangement of rooms, which include a domed central hall and a staircase fluidly connecting the outside and inside of the building, was a novelty – the design cites Greek and Roman elements like columns and porticoes that were formerly reserved exclusively for government buildings and palaces. This was an outward sign that the privileges of the ruling classes were slowly being made more democratic – a phenomenon interpreted more literally by the French revolution, which forcibly removed many of the treasures from Versailles and put them on public display in the Palais du Louvre.
The Museum As Object
Of course, the representative architecture was also meant to emphasise the position of the museum as a cultural instution and status symbol, attracting visitors and proclaiming the wealth and standing of a city. This, like so many things, has been driven to extremes today. While many fully functional museums are iconic in their own right – take, for example, the pyramid added to the Louvre by IM Pei, or the Centre Pompidou with its brightly-painted external pipes – others sacrifice usability for artistic statement.
While some architects settle for having their museum buildings photographed before the collections are in place so they can publish them empty, others let the prestige of designing a museum go to their heads entirely. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, when called upon to design the Guggenheim Museum in New York, came up with a long ramp spiralling around a hollow core – an amazing space, but one that simply doesn't work for art, because the curved walls and slanting floor make it impossible to hang paintings.
Other cities seem to commission odd museum buildings entirely on purpose, hoping for the so-called Bilbao Effect. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, this time designed by Frank Gehry, is a vast amorphous blob of shiny metal. It's so emblematic that a million tourists per year flock to see it, and take in the more than decent collection of art almost as a side effect – not quite the temple of the muses full of scholars in quiet contemplation that our ancestors envisioned.
The Museum In Today's Society
Of course, somewhere along the way, the purpose of museums has changed again, albeit more subtly this time, following a general trend in education back toward letting people discover things for themselves rather than merely being told about them. Museums have become - or have returned to being - a form of popular entertainment, just a little less daunting and highbrow than going to see the ballet. With their wide array of lecture halls and children's play areas, shops and cafés, exhibition rooms and workshops, they're far more than just a place to store things that aren't useful, but that you can't bear to throw away, either.