Museums Essay

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In most countries, and especially in the United States, museums are a reflection of society. Usually, the buildings exemplify civic pride, serving as examples of architectural accomplishments. The public and political importance of a museum is signified by how it is funded and to what degree, as well as by the scope of its collections. The collections also provide evidence of the curiosity of the community’s citizens to know and experience not only American culture, but the societies of other people, lands, and eras.

Today, more than any other time in its history, the museum in the United States is a place for education for everyone. This was not always so; early museums had exclusive private collections that were owned by and open only to the wealthy—those of the same race and social class. In this entry, this history of museums and their educational role is briefly described.

An Educational Role

Many early museums were viewed as sacred places for collectors where visitors would speak in whispers as they wandered from one gallery to another. Museums were largely for the wealthy, the cultured, and the elite. Thus, early museums reflected American society in their lack of openness to new ideas and new people. As the country became industrialized and welcomed new citizens, museums struggled to find a place within the changing society.

Over the past 200 years, the educational role of museums has been subject to considerable debate. From their earliest inception, there has been no consensus by those running American museums as to whom they should teach, or even for what reasons. But from their outset, museums have always undertaken to teach someone something. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the major objective of an increasing number of American museums was to educate, inform, and inspire the general public. More and more museums were open to those who did not have the benefit of an extended education. Through lectures, objects, and pictures, museums could teach an increasingly diverse population. This tradition of teaching from and learning with original objects continues to be a major emphasis of most museum education.

Fostering Equality

Museums are considered ideal institutions because they offer a type of social equality achieved through learning for all patrons. During the post–Civil War period, the museum movement’s primary motivation was a need to instill literacy in the American public; growing numbers of immigrants did not know or appreciate the story of Western civilization, it was thought. Indeed, civic leaders depended upon public schools and museums to promote a cohesive set of moral values for the community.

Working in the early decades of the twentieth century, John Cotton Dana, director of Newark Free Public Library and Museum, and Henry Watson Kent, the supervisor of museum instruction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (both trained as librarians), saw museums as a powerful instrument for self-improvement, and in their work, each tried to reach all parts of his community. Seeing museums as places of active interpretation, the two men believed that it was the duty of these institutions to be proactive in inspiring popular interest.

By the end of the 1920s, the educational role of museums was de-emphasized, as was the goal of social equality. Increasingly, collecting was seen as an end in itself, and the completion and care of collections became the major professional concern for directors. Special staff members were appointed to develop educational services for schools and for adult visitors. The museum teacher arranged for loan services and school visits, while a guide lecturer provided adult services. Withdrawing from relationships with the public, museum directors relied on exhibitions as their main form of communication.

Recent Trends

By the mid-1940s, the horrors of the war and the threat of obliteration from the nuclear bomb helped museums to refocus on their educational responsibilities toward the public. Prosperity after the war also brought expansion. The social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s produced another set of demands for educational services from museums, resulting in hands-on learning in children’s museums and science centers. Display methods became the focus of research and development for museums. Another outcome of the social turmoil of the 1960s was to put museums in the center of the cultural wars, a trend that continues into the present as traditionalists and multiculturalists fight over collections and their interpretations. Native Americans, along with African Americans and other historically disenfranchised groups, have increasingly come to demand a voice in museum policies and practices and ownership of artifacts collected from their communities, as well as the right to have their historical and cultural stories told.

By the 1990s, the educational role of museums was once again emphasized—a direction that is expected to continue and grow in the future. The philosophy of lifelong learning, and the recognition that learning does not end with formal schooling, provides a theoretical framework for the role of museums and education into the twenty-first century. It is clear that in the future, museums must be increasingly responsive to the complex and diverse populations of the United States, responding to their needs through innovative educational programs and community engagement.

Museums are complex institutions, even more so today than in their early history. How and what they do is open to considerable controversy and debate. Among museum professionals, the essentialists decry the shift in focus away from scholarship and preserving and collecting; in opposition are the pragmatists, who understand that for museums to survive, they must embrace change.

Working to survive in a marketplace economy as largely nonprofit institutions, museums are forced to adopt the contradictory roles of being a place of memory in a country that thrives on immediacy and being an advocate for tradition in a nation of innovation. Accountable to more constituents than in the past, museums must operate as cost-effective businesses while also serving as educational resources, civic centers, and community partners.


  1. Alexander, E. (1979). Museums in motion: An introduction to the history and functions of museums. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History.
  2. American Association of Museums. (1992). Excellence and equity: Education and the public dimension of museums. Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1994a). The educational role of the museum. London: Routledge.
  4. Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1994b). Museum and gallery education. London: Leicester University Press.
  5. Shapiro, M. (1990). The museum: A reference guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

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