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The transformation of the museum: from the curiosity room to the exhibition

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The transformation of the museum: from the curiosity room to the exhibition

Housing objects of artistic, cultural, historical and scientific significance, the term “museum” is derived from the Latin language. With regard to classical antiquity, in ancient Greek ‘mouseion’, meaning ‘set of muses’ was a philosophical institution, a place of contemplation and reflection. These muses refer to 9 Muses in Greek Mythology, goddesses of the arts and sciences, patron saints of knowledge. The origins of the first museums come from private collections of wealthy families, individuals or institutions, exhibited in ‘cabinets of curiosities‘ and often temples and places of worship. Yet these “collections” are the predecessors of the modern museum, they did not seek to rationally categorize and exhibit their collections like the exhibits we see today.

By definition, the modern museum is either a building or an institution that preserves or exhibits a collection of numerous artifacts of cultural, historical, scientific or artistic significance. Through permanent and temporary exhibitions, most public museums make these artifacts accessible to the public and often seek to preserve and document their collection, to serve both research and the general public. Essentially, museums house significant collections, whether small or large scale.

Ashmolean Museum/Oxford.  Image courtesy of Lewis Clarke/Wikicommons CC BY-SA 2.0Shanghai Astronomical Museum / China.  Image © ArchExistsSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum/New York.  Image © Laurian GhinitoiuA cabinet painted by Frans II Francken / 1636. Image courtesy of Wikicommons+ 11

As far as classical antiquity is concerned, art was displayed everywhere, whether in public buildings or in the homes of wealthy individuals. Art as a concept was inseparable from religion, but the modern museum does the opposite. Today the objects are ‘museumized’extracted from their original context and isolated from their historical conditions, the modern museum transforms an object into a work of art simply by exhibiting it.


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The ancient library of Alexandria / O. Von Corven.  Image courtesy of Wikicommons
The ancient library of Alexandria / O. Von Corven. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

Collections including Mouseion of Alexandria, founded around 280 BC. was an example of a research institute similar to that of museum typology, with a community of scholars. Known for its large collection of books, some suggest that some botanical and zoological specimens may have been collected as part of a nod to the muses themselves. Other collections including Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Speculative “Museum” (c. 530 BCE) in modern Iraq contained artifacts from earlier Mesopotamian civilizations, suggesting the early development of museum features.

Musei Wormiani Historia the frontispiece of the Wormianum Museum depicting Wormius' cabinet of curiosities / 1655. Image courtesy of Wikicommons
Musei Wormiani Historia the frontispiece of the Wormianum Museum depicting Wormius’ cabinet of curiosities / 1655. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

Between about 1550 and 1750, the Wunderkammera cabinet of curiosities was a common method of displaying collections of interest. Wormiani Museum of Ole Worm (1655) is a key example of the unusual nature of the first cabinet. Lacking an orderly arrangement, it featured a diverse range of unusual artifacts and specimens, decorating the walls and ceilings. This collection typology commonly included antiquities, natural history and art objects, often divided into four categories with Latin taxonomy. Naturalia (products of nature and rare creatures that appeared as monstrous creatures). Artificialia (artificial objects created by man, including antiques and art). Exotica (exotic objects, animals and plants collected from distant places) and finally Scientifica (human ability, including clocks and scientific instruments).

A cabinet painted by Frans II Francken / 1636. Image courtesy of Wikicommons
A cabinet painted by Frans II Francken / 1636. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

Often these “cabinets” were not built on the foundation of truth. Many preserved plants and animals were stitched together to create fantastical creatures and beasts. The spirit of the firm was not to be scientifically exact, but to be imaginative and brimming with fascinating specimens. A combination of fact and fiction of expeditions and travels.

Ashmolean Museum/Oxford.  Image courtesy of Lewis Clarke/Wikicommons CC BY-SA 2.0
Ashmolean Museum/Oxford. Image courtesy of Lewis Clarke/Wikicommons CC BY-SA 2.0

The word museum as it was used in 15and century of Europe for describing the works of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, Italy. It was later used to describe the catalog of John Tradescant’s art collection, ‘musaeum Tradescantianum’ which was published in 1656. This specific collection was moved by Elias Ashmole to a new building at Oxford University , which was purpose-built as a host and named the Ashmolean Museum. Opened to the public in 1683, the museum is considered one of the first modern museums built on the concept of the museum as it is known today and was the first existing university museum.

Victoria & Albert Museum / London.  Image courtesy of Diliff/Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0
Victoria & Albert Museum / London. Image courtesy of Diliff/Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0

The museum that most closely resembles the modern exhibition has become primarily popularized at the end of the 19and century and early 20and centuriesoften called the “the era of museums”. The first museums made “public” were often only accessible to the middle and upper classes, and even then they were difficult to access. Concerns that large crowds could potentially damage artifacts meant that visitors to museums such as the English Museum had to request their admission in writing and were taken to the galleries in small groups. As the museum became established, it became more popular with a range of social classes and gave way to an expansion in both design and capacity.

The birth of Victoria and Albert in Kensington, London is a key example of the transformation of the modern museum. Its origins lie in the “Great Exhibition” of 1851, otherwise known as the “Works of All Nations” or “The Crystal Palace Exhibition”. As the first international design and manufacturing exhibition, it led to the development of many institutional establishments, including a cultural district of museums and colleges in South Kensington, London.

The Crystal Palace / 1851. Image courtesy of Wikiarquitectura.com
The Crystal Palace / 1851. Image courtesy of Wikiarquitectura.com

The Great Exhibition sought to express interdisciplinary design methods ‘works of the industries of all nations’. Built in the Crystal Place, a vast iron and glass exhibition hall, designed for maximized interior space and large amounts of light, by the architect Mr Joseph Paxton. Considered a new modern phenomenon; despite holding collections of similar likeness, he sought to expose British industry to the international market. It highlights an era of industrial revolution, invention, scientific discovery and a new style of architecture. One of them was based on classical architecture, but sought to use modern production techniques and materials.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum/New York.  Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum/New York. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

Post-war, the museum’s progression in an architectural sense was revolutionary, giving way to a new notion of modernism. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959) designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright is a monument to modernism with very unique and organic qualities, built to look like no other museum in the world. Designed with atmospheric features in mind, it uses modernist shapes to best complement artwork. Minimal aesthetics and color to accentuate and highlight the artwork, rather than conventional notions of “framed” artifacts with corresponding grandeur. The museum as an exhibition, built to serve the artifacts rather than to house them.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum/New York.  Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum/New York. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

In recent years, a new wave of innovative exhibition design has begun to beautify our museums, transforming them from mere galleries into interactive and engaging hotspots. A paradigm shift in digital design technology has allowed museum architecture to develop rapidly. Offering solutions in display, new technologies associated with lighting, temperature control, etc. offer new methods of presenting artifacts to better serve the public and scientific domain. With the rise of virtual reality and other exciting ventures.

Shanghai Astronomical Museum / China.  Image © ArchExists
Shanghai Astronomical Museum / China. Image © ArchExists
The use of virtual reality at the Shanghai Astronomy Museum / China.  Image © Ennead Architects
The use of virtual reality at the Shanghai Astronomy Museum / China. Image © Ennead Architects

The role of museums has changed dramatically over time. The contemporary museum is an exhibition for everyone, inviting diverse audiences from all over the world. In addition to their traditional role of preserving, collecting and sharing collections, museums are now finding that they play an increasing role in supporting holistic community development, forming identities and bringing together a range of communities. . From exclusive to accessible and from private to public, the museum will continue to evolve whether through virtual reality or new innovative technologies.