Thomas H. Wilson
I cannot remember when I visited my first museum, but I remember very clearly when I had my first exhibition experience. I was three years old, and my father and I were walking in downtown Phoenix. There, in a huge display window, was a great taxidermy bear, rising to monumental height on its hind legs. I remember the store as an automobile showroom, but don’t know why a bear would be there other than great visual impact. At the Arizona Museum of Natural History today we present a visual feast of dinosaur skeletons, full-body dinosaur reproductions, and yes, a taxidermy bear. Daily I see wide-eyed children responding to these images and experiencing something akin to my reaction to the bear in the window. We want their experience at the museum to be inspirational, educational and memorable.
Museums, along with school systems, libraries and institutions of higher learning, are among the world’s great educational and research organizations. Like libraries, the origins of the museum idea in Western cultures may be traced to deep antiquity. Even further back in time is the evolution of aesthetic sensibility. The artistic qualities of the cave and rock paintings of Europe and Africa dating to 30,000 years ago and earlier are well known. Even some of stone tools, such as the upper Acheulean hand axes dating to a third of a million years ago, may be fashioned beyond what was necessary for pure functionality. Making art and desiring to possess it are among the characteristics that make us human.
The word museum comes from the Greek mouseion, a place dedicated to the muses, the three or nine nymphs of antiquity representing literature, music and dance, or more broadly, knowledge and the arts. The cultures of the ancient Near East, Egyptians, Minoans, Greeks and Romans all produced, traded, captured, and displayed works of art. In the ancient world, the architectural repositories of this wealth were usually temples, palaces, and the homes and gardens of the wealthy. Then, as now, display of art was both personal and civic, and its accumulation was a sign both of taste and wealth. Perhaps more than other ancient civilizations, the Romans looted the wealth of conquered peoples, and ostentatiously displayed the plunder in imperial triumphs, on sculpture such as Trajan’s column, and in public buildings.
The museum and library function may have come together at the Library of Alexandria, a research institute where scholars from the ancient world came to learn and teach. In addition to the library, museum functions included the study of mathematics, engineering, medicine and geography, made use of by such luminaries as Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and Hipparchus.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, what museum functions there were survived primarily in religious organizations. With the collapse of much civil society in Europe, in the Middle Ages great public architecture had its expression in religious institutions. Cathedrals, churches and monasteries held and displayed paintings, tapestries, stained glass, objects of precious metals, ivory, and manuscripts for visitors and congregations.
As Europe entered the Renaissance, renewed interest in the classical world was accompanied by robust economic activity. The rise of universities, better educated elites, and the accumulation of wealth created the conditions for the rise of museums. The Palazzo Medici in Florence, built by Cosimo de’ Medici between 1445 and 1460, displayed in its colonnaded court and salons sculpture and other works of art in various media. The Palazzo Medici has been called the first European museum.
Museums played a role in the transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, with its greater emphasis on rationalism and scientific process. From Italy to northern Europe, inquisitive gentlemen of means collected, preserved, catalogued and presented objects from around the world in spaces variously called kunstkammer, wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Ferrante Imperator (1550-1625) in Naples, Francesco Calceolari (1522-1609) in Verona, Ferdinando Cospi (1606-1686) in Bologna, and Ole Worm (1588-1655) in Copenhagen participated in this public tradition. Although sometimes called cabinets of curiosities, actually these collectors were experimenting with classification and organizational systems, and with methods of presentation. In these and similar institutions we may see the rise of natural history and science museums.
Museums were also established at universities. Fourteen universities were founded in Europe before 1300, in Italy, England, Spain, Portugal and France. Among them was Oxford, in operation since at least 1167, and granted a papal charter in 1254. John Tradescant was gardener to some of the great houses of England in the early seventeenth century, and from his travels he assembled a collection of natural history and ethnological specimens that he exhibited at “The Ark” in Lambeth, London. His son, also John, continued in his father’s profession and vocation, and ultimately the Tradescant museum and library became the foundation of the world’s first university museum, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University (1677).
The British Museum and the Louvre are examples of the development of national museums, each with quite different routes to prominence. The core of the British Museum at its founding was the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, a prominent physician (Sloane followed Isaac Newton as president of the Royal Society) with a natural history collection of 71,000 objects. Upon his death in 1753, parliament acquired the collection for the nation and established the British Museum, which opened in 1759, the first national public museum in the world.
France’s national museum was born of revolution. The French flirted with opening royal collections to the public before the French Revolution. Under Louis XIV, the Versailles palace and gardens were open to some, and in 1774 Louis XVI began the processes to open the Louvre as a museum. Events overcame planning. Revolutionaries nationalized French royal collections, added some works of art from church organizations, and opened the Louvre as a national museum for the people of France in 1793. The museum organized collections by French, Flemish, Italian and Dutch schools, and provided explanatory texts and catalogues. Later, Napoleon’s expeditions in Italy, Egypt and elsewhere in Europe brought artistic plunder back to France. The French government organized the envoi system, whereby works of art from Paris were shared with regional museums, and works of art from Napoleon’s conquests were shared throughout France.
In the United States, although the Charleston Museum, which traces its origins to 1773, is America’s oldest museum, the first American museums of great influence were those organized by Charles Willson Peale, in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Peale founded his Philadelphia museum, “a repository for natural curiosities,” in 1786 to provide “rational amusement” and to teach natural science, art and some history. Fossils, taxidermy and portraiture were among the highlights of the Peale museums.
Ironically, the gift of a foreigner created the national museum of the United States. James Smithson, an Englishman who had never visited the United States, left a bequest in 1835 to “the United States of America, to be found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Naturally, congress fought over how to use the money, but in 1846 chartered the Smithsonian Institution. It has now grown into one of the great national museums of the world.
The 1860s and 1870s were good times for the development of museums in the United States. Political, social and financial heavyweights founded the American Museum of Natural History in 1869, and President U. S. Grant laid the cornerstone in 1874. Across Central Park, in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded, modestly, to “gather together a more or less complete collection of objects illustrative of the history of art in all its branches, from the earliest beginnings to the present time…for the instruction and entertainment of the people.” Verily, over a hundred and thirty years later, the Met is pretty much living up to its mandate. At Harvard University, in 1866 George Peabody offered to fund a museum dedicated to archaeology and ethnology, which began the tradition of universities and colleges in the United States often having one or more museums on campus.
Museums are institutions that collect, preserve, exhibit and interpret objects for the benefit of the public. Today there are perhaps 17,500 museums in the United States and maybe 55,000 worldwide. Some museums are private nonprofits; others are national, state or local government entities. They are dedicated to a great number of subjects: art, history, science, natural history, anthropology and other subjects. There are historic houses, tribal museums, children’s museums, ethnic museums and more. Zoos, botanical gardens and arboreta have museum elements in them. In the United States, there are about a billion visits to museums each year, more than attendance at all professional sports events combined.
Arizona is a microcosm of the national scene. There are perhaps 275 museums in Arizona. The state has national parks and monuments (Grand Canyon, Casa Grande, Tuzigoot, Navajo, Tonto and more); state museums (Arizona State Museum, Arizona Historical Society in Tucson and branches in Flagstaff, Yuma and Tempe, and the Arizona Capitol Museum); and many municipal museums. There are nine state historic parks and 120 history museums in Arizona. The state has flagship art museums in the Phoenix Art Museum, Tucson Museum of Art and Heard Museum. Some museums are dedicated to particular timeframes, like Mesa Contemporary Arts, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and the ASU Art Museum. Others focus upon particular audiences: Phoenix Children’s Museum and the i.d.e.a. Museum. The Desert Botanical Garden, Boyce Thompson Arboretum and Tucson Botanical Garden offer superb presentations of Southwestern floras.
The Arizona Museum of Natural History, Museum of Northern Arizona and Arizona Sonora Desert Museum present the natural history of the Colorado Plateau and desert areas of the Southwest. Some museums are just gems, like the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon, the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, and the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg. The Musical Instrument Museum is a tremendous new addition to Arizona’s museum world.
“The modern museum,” wrote one authority, “is a product of Renaissance humanism, eighteenth-century enlightenment and nineteenth-century democracy.” The origins of museums are also deeply rooted in the civilizations of antiquity, and in timeless characteristics that make us human.
Thomas H. Wilson is the former chair of the Arizona Humanities Council and Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History