Museums Essay

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Museums  are  nonprofit organizations that  own, utilize, exhibit,  and  care for tangible  objects  that are exhibited  to the public on a regular  schedule. Museums  take on the challenge of caring for and exhibiting  objects  of  historical,  artistic,  cultural, or   scientific   merit.   Museum   collections   have become   accessible  to   a  broad   global   learning public via digitization of their objects. Many organizations now have images of their collections available to anyone with an Internet connection through Web sites, Webinars, applications such as Google  Art  Projects,  or  the  Modern Museum  of Art in New York City’s inventory of its collections; software   such   as   the   Species  Analyst;   online libraries  such as Europeana, Europe’s  multimedia online library;  widgets; blogs; and so on.

Types  Of Museums

The many and varied museum formats include archeology, fine  and  applied  arts,  anthropology, biography, children’s crafts, encyclopedia, ethnology, historic  houses,  history,  living  history, maritime, military   and  war,  mobile  (exhibitions from a vehicle), natural history, open air (outdoor), pop-up  (a short-term institution existing in a temporary space), science, technology, virtual (Web presence   platforms),  industry,  zoological   parks, and botanical gardens.

Evolution Of Museums

The  word  museum has  its earliest  origins  in the Greek Mouseion—a temple dedicated to the muses, who  watched   over  the  welfare  of  the  arts.  The early museums  began  in the private  collections  of wealthy   individuals   or  institutions. The  earliest museum  on  record  dates  back  to  530  b.c.e.  and was devoted to Mesopotamian objects of antiquity: the  Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum.  Public  museums began  in Renaissance  Italy, although many  public museums  of  stature   were  not  founded   until  the  18th century or later. These early museums maintained  restricted   entry   to  members   of  the public, who had to be given written  permission  to visit. The first modern public museum, the Asholean Museum  at the University of Oxford, was founded in  1677   by  a  private   collector.   Since  then,  the modern museum has become a hybrid and amalgam of other  societal  institutions, including  the cathedral, royal  palace,  theater,  university,  library, and retail store.

Museums  And The Public And Societal Good

More  than  55,000 museums can be found  around the  world—some in  large  cities,  others  in  small cities or towns. The primary  purpose  of museums is public  education, although some  museums  are also focused on research  and conservation. At the top  of the list of the most-visited  museums  in the world  is the  Louvre  in  Paris,  with  9.72  million annual   visitors  in  2012.   The  top  20  museums (located  mostly in the United States, London, and Paris)  had   a  total   attendance  of  98.5   million people   in  2012.   The   top   10   most   visited   art museums  in  the  world  are,  after  the  Louvre  in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (6.12   million   visitors);   the   British   Museum, London  (5.58  million  visitors);  the Tate  Modern, London    (5.30   million   visitors);   the   National Gallery, London  (5.16 million visitors); the Vatican Museums,  Vatican  City (5.06 million visitors); the National Palace Museum,  Taipei, Taiwan  (4.36 million visitors); the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  (4.2  million  visitors);  and  the Musée d’Orsay,  Paris (3.6 million visitors).

Museums  had come to expect funding as a public good  through the  years,  and  so they  did  not design   or   assess  with   social   impact   in  mind. Currently, they  are  still  relatively  weak  in  their social  goal  setting  and  methodologies. Yet  one Internet-based Delphi survey found  that  museums build   social  capital,   develop   communities, and contribute to social change and public awareness.

Museums   such   as  the   Tate   Modern  and   the Durban Art Gallery, for example, are participating in social change causes such as helping rehabilitate young offenders,  reskilling long-term  unemployed people,  providing  new  enjoyment  to  the  elderly, and  working  alongside  disadvantaged minorities. Thus,  museums  provide  a societal  good  because they both  educate  and enlighten  the public.

In the United States, more Americans attend museum-related activities than all professional sporting   events  combined.   Many   thousands  of people  from  around the  world  work  as museum volunteers  or museum  friends.  Since 1977,  a day each year has been allocated as International Museum  Day,  sometime  around May  18,  and  is coordinated by the International Council of Museums  to provide  an opportunity for the public to  meet  museum  professionals. Museums  are both trusted  repositories of scholarship and showcases for  collections,  but  they  have  also  become places where people can explore  diverse and controversial issues such as racism, sexism, and censorship.  Visitors  learn  and  may be stimulated to argue, debate,  and think  critically.

Museums  And The Economy

The   museums   in  the   United   States   contribute $21  billion  to  the  American  economy  each  year and employ 400,000 Americans. Museums’  return on investment  has averaged  more than  $7 in taxes for  every  $1  that   the  government appropriates. Museums  also contribute to the economy  and the social regeneration of industrial cities because corporations find  that  it is easier  to  recruit  new personnel  for  cities that  are  also  culturally  alive. Some U.S. museums  thrived  during  the economic downturn. Some, such as the historic  houses, were particularly hard hit during the Great Recession. In most  parts  of the  world,  museums  are  supported by the national government.

Most  museums  in the United States are finding that  they must  become  more  entrepreneurial and adept  at  raising  money  themselves.  They  survive on  a mix  of federal,  state,  and  local  government funding; foundations; corporations; individual support; and  investment  income.  Selling off valuable objects  in their  collections  continues  to be a controversial means with which some have generated  needed  funds. Museums  may find additional revenue  streams  in admission  fees, museum  exhibitions,  special outreach programs, gift shops, bookstores, restaurants, museum  space rentals, loans  of their  artwork to other  museums,  or offsite  museum  shops.  Economic  value  contributed by museums  is also  made  possible  through tourism, marketing, community development, quality of life, and  museum  merchandising. Increasingly, museums, like other nonprofits, are encouraged to run their operations as for-profit businesses. Museums  are  developing  at  a  much  more  rapid rate   in   developing   economies   such   as   China (which has more than  3,000  museums, with many more   being  planned).   These  countries’   governments are concerned with the development of their national and cultural  identity  and wish to be seen in a culturally  progressive light.

Assessing Museum  Effectiveness

As concerns  of contributions, easy accessibility, transparency,  responsibility,  relevance,   economic and social impact, and museums’ financial sustainability in general surface, the task of museum assessment becomes more critical and requires more sophisticated, economic-minded thinking.  Museum assessment  is now  given much  more  attention by both  museums  and  their  stakeholders, who  have become more focused on demonstrable performance and tangible  and quantifiable indicators. Museums must  also  do  this  to  attract further  funding  and ongoing  support from  varied  stakeholders, including  foundations, the government, individual donors,  and the public in general.

Museums  are valuable custodians of trusted evidence (collections) and public heritage that is preserved   and   made   accessible  to  current   and future  generations. This is done  through museum collection value, aesthetic value, educational value, experience  value, and  economic  value. Museums are always changing  as they seek to meet the contemporary needs of their diverse constituents, including  local communities. Boundaries  between museum  and  community are  becoming  increasingly permeable and integrative of education, preservation,  recreation,  cultural   heritage,   and social  change  leadership. Museums   are  increasingly becoming  inclusive “palaces  for the people.”


  1. Brown, Carol, Elizabeth Wood,  and Gabriela  Inspiring Action:  Museums and Social Change. Edinburgh, UK: MuseumsEtc., 2009.
  2. Carbonell, Bettina Messias. Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  3. Rocco, Fiammetta. “Temples of Delight.”  Economist (December  21, 2013).

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