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A museum is a cultural and educational instutution that maintains collections of items of cultural, scientific, artistic or historical importance. Museums are important custodians of heritage, and as such are open to the public, either free of charge or for a modest fee. The word 'museum' originally comes from the Musaeum of Alexandria (in Greek : Μουσείον της Αλεξάνδρειας), which was founded in the third century B.C. by the Ptolemies and "was renowned throughout the ancient world as a haven for philosophers and scientists from throughout the Alexandrian empire." [1] Museums have undergone a number of transformations since the time of the Musaeum, taking on a variety of forms and serving several different functions. Today, the term encompasses a range of different institutions, all of which display collections of material of one sort or another for public consumption and the majority of which include as a part of their mission statements a component of educational outreach. According to the International Council of Museums:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.[2]

The Musaeum at Alexandria

The Musaeum complex, which included the famous Library of Alexandria, was built to be a temple of the Muses and was aimed at the celebration and expansion of knowledge. It "hosted 30 scholars in residence; provided spaces and services to support research, discussion, performance and artistic expression; and was a magnet for scholars throughout the classical world."[3] Due to a dearth in primary sources and an absence of archeological evidence very little is known about the day-to-day functions of the Musaeum or what, precisely, was studied there. Yet its memory survived the middle ages in the writings of a few Greek scholars to lend its name to modern institutions.

The modern museum

Modern museums largely find their roots in the collections that were amassed by nobility and the wunderkammer that were assembled by wealthy explorers in Renaissance Europe. Owners would allow friends and 'respectable' members of society to view these collections. During the Renaissance, some philanthropic individuals donated or willed their collections to the public. The concept of the public museum developed gradually, not truly coming into its own until the Age of Enlightenment. The private museum, operated by groups or individuals for esoteric or commercial purposes continued (P.T. Barnum's American Museum is an example), and private museums still exist, but in modern parlance the word museum is generally taken to mean a non-profit institution operated in the public interest.


  1. Paula Young Lee. 1997. "In the Name of the Museum." Museum Anthropology 20(2):7-14. Pp. 10.
  2. ICOM Statutes
  3. Sam Demas. 2005. From the Ashes of Alexandria: What’s Happening in the College Library? In Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space. Pp. 25-40. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.