The Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Sources

The Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Sources

The Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Sources

The Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Sources


What should a museum contain or exclude? Who does a museum hope to attract? What, in fact, is the purpose of a museum? The change from private collection to public museum is a crucial cultural development of the nineteenth century, but one that is bound to raise fundamental questions.The Emergence of the Modern Museum, a unique compendium of original sources, presents a detailed and dynamic account of the development of the institution and its practices during that critical period of inception.

From poignant recollections of visits to stately homes to charged debates about the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles or the establishment of an Indian Museum; from early catalogue entries describing the curiosities discovered by Captain Cook to later ones organizing human skulls according to Darwinian principles--this volume offers a representative sample of the diverse, contentious, and often moving ideas that have shaped the public museum from its earliest history.

The Emergence of the Modern Museummakes available a wide range of material, including proposals for reform laid out in parliamentary papers, essays by influential theorists and curators, and accounts of the experience of museum-going in the popular press. With its original selections, thematic organization, and careful apparatus, this collection makes newly-accessible the cultural moment that defined the complex institution we know today.


In 1820 fewer than a handful of museums existed on the British Isles, and both their form and function were far from what a visitor today would expect. By the beginning of the First World War, not only had over 400 museums been founded in Great Britain but their place in culture was recognizably close and often identical to the modern one—whether considered in terms of content, forms of display, or modes of access. Although there has never been a single and uncontested account of the character and function of the museum, it is to this period of inception that we may turn for the most urgent and compelling debates as to the nature of institutions that were set up with such effort and expense in England and all over the world. the goal of this anthology is to allow the reader access to primary sources indicative of the history and development of the museum in the nineteenth century, which is to say, at the moment the modern concept took institutional form in response to varied social and cultural debates.

While the nature of a private collection is limited only by the resources, aspirations, and opportunities of an individual who may acquire, sell, or rearrange holdings at will, the public museum is always of necessity a compromise shaped by competing interests as well as by practical constraints including the characteristics of objects acquired through gift or purchase, the architecture of structures built or redesigned to accommodate particular collections, and competition for funding from other quarters. the various and sometimes countervailing tendencies shaping the institutions we have come to call museums are repeatedly illustrated by the material included in this book. Protecting precious objects or identifying the value of items not self-evidently important, making objects available for advanced study or introducing them to unprepared visitors, supporting disinterested culture or offering practical instruction: each of these goals depends on its own set of assumptions and calls for particular responses to practical challenges.

Nineteenth-century writings on any one of the institutions mentioned in this anthology to follow could fill several volumes, and it would be entirely reasonable to focus on one particular kind of museum—of science or art, for example—or on one issue, such as architecture, display, location, the role of empire, and so forth. As the selections to follow will demonstrate, however, the material itself does not naturally divide into such straightforward categories. in testimony before parliamentary committees, for example, questioning can move from developments in art history to speculations on the effect of weather on paintings to the appropriate pay scale for guards. Because the emergence of the institution involves aspirations that may never . . .

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