Throughout human history museums have had to adjust in form, structure and technique relative to a changes in societal structures and needs. The next series of posts will explore three stages of transformation of the museum (and perhaps an emergent stage). I will admit it is a bit bold to try write a historiography of the museum on a weblog post. So I will choose to diagram it instead. Of course these are gross simplifications of very complex issues that deserve a historians’ proper attention but the words contained in these diagrams do in fact owe a debt to the writings of social historians Elean-Hooper Greenhill and Tony Bennet, who’s influential works have shaped my sense of how contemporary museums came to be.
These proto-museums were centers of power, focused expressions of the sovereign’s dominion over the world and his subjects. Cabinets of Curiosity, Wunderkammern, the Studiolo were owned and made by noble European families living in the early Renaissance and lasting through the Baroque. The Cabinet was characterized by its symbolic and representational power, an effective theatrical demonstration of the soveriegn’s knowledge and control of his empire, and a symbolic dominion over the earthly world. A good picture here. Combining artifacts and specimens chosen for their rarity and uniqueness. Their script was coded and known only to their owner. They were certainly not accessible to the public and were viewed only by a privileged audience in the service of the sovereign. Many of these private collections formed the basis of early public and university museums.