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What are museums for?

April 11, 2013
Beamish Open Air Museum

Beamish Open Air Museum

What are museums for? For many they just are, they exist, and are part of the local scenery along with the library, department store or theatre. A museum provides a seal of cultural approval for a town or borough or at a tourist attraction for visitors. Recently some commentators and funders have expected more from museums, especially publically funded museums. Perhaps museums should get involved in community cohesion, or help reduce crime or act as agents to assist disadvantaged youth. A tall order if the museum has often only included a curator, maybe an education or exhibition designer too, even harder if your museum is entirely volunteer run!

So what were museums for? Well the original founders of museums in the modern era do give us a clue about why museums were founded in the past.

Ralph Thoresby

Ralph Thoresby

Some museums were established from private collections that had been sourced by individuals who had an almost pathological, or at least obsessive nature.  Seventeenth Collectors like Ralph Thoresby of Leeds or John Tradescant were great antiquarians who had a passion for acquiring objects that helped them order and classify the world. The latter’s collection helped establish the now renowned Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Although many of these museums welcomed visitors they were collections established by and for their founders or benefactors.

Exhibit from the Great Exhibition; the inspiration for the V&A

Exhibit from the Great Exhibition; the inspiration for the V&A

In the nineteenth century there was a move to establish museums as institutions that would educate and better the population. The Victoria & Albert Museum being a great example. It was founded after the Great Exhibition in 1851 to improve the quality of manufactures in Britain, allowing the “use of the collections of both applied art and science as educational resources to help boost productive industry”. These museums very much wanted to educate the middling and working classes in order to improve them.

More recently museums have evolved to preserve cultures or a way of life. The open air museums that were first established in Scandinavia was an attempt to preserve and celebrate disappearing cultures. Many buildings were saved and rebuilt in these museums, but they also recorded social and oral histories of the people who lived and worked in these buildings. From the 1960s and 1970s there was another surge of new museums, often attempting to preserve and celebrate our disappearing industrial heritage, whether it was dockyards, coalmines, railways or brickworks. This wave of museum enthusiasts were also interested in the lives of the workers and families associated with these places. Although the objects remained important, the everyday stories had become important too.

The next time you visit a museum, see if you can guess which type it belongs to?

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