Early History of Museums
The beginning of the earliest of museums was in the form of private collections of the wealthy and the elite. Individuals, families, institutions of art and rare or curious natural objects or artefacts found their place in these private museums or collections that were open only to a select few for viewing.
These collections that were a status symbol of sorts were displayed in the homes or institutions in special wonder rooms or cabinet of curiosities as they were called. The earliest known of such museums or collections dates from 530 BC known as Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum. This collection was dedicated to antiquities that belonged to the Mesopotamian culture and was evidently rich and popular enough to warrant labels for the ordered collection. This information however has no cited source.
A visit to these museums were dependent on the whims of the owner and his employees. Access to these museums, especially the private collections was possible only to the elite and privilege. It was those collectors who had an enviable collection of rarities and curios and who showcased these for the elite who stood to gain a better standing in the upper crust of the society. Some of these curios or art works in the collectors’ collections were extremely rare and works of pure genius, and most of the collectors with a taste for these were eager, sometimes desperate to acquire them. The artefacts or objects that were produced by a broad dissemination of the ancient written records, extensive travel, adventurous voyages that brought with it experiences & discovery, and other more organised media of communication & altercation were eventually sorted by displaying and showcasing them in the museums.
In these times of glory religious institutions came to serve the purpose of a primitive form of the modern day art galleries or even museums. Wealthy collectors, elites, and even the royals have been known to donate collections of their precious and rare acquisitions to these places of religious nature including temples, churches etc.
Beginning from the late medieval periods in Europe, parts of the royal palaces, castles or large country houses were opened to chosen sections of the public and the criteria were based entirely on the whims of the owners. In cathedrals and large churches, the treasuries or select sections of the treasuries were showcased for the benefit of the public. Art tourism took on a glorified shape in Italy especially when the Grand Tour became a significant industry from around the 18th century. During this period cities in Italy actually took substantial efforts to open access to their prized collections and key works.
Private museums of some repute began to be set up in and after the 17th century. The inspiration and structure of these were drawn from the concept of cabinet of curiosities or wonder rooms. In 1683, Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, was the first one of this kind to open that housed and showcased the respected and intriguing collection of artefacts of Elias Ashmole that were once donated to the Oxford University.