Historical story

The first museum in the world

There are approximately 700 museums in the Netherlands according to the definition of the Central Bureau of Statistics, which in short means:a museum has a building containing a collection that is regularly opened to the public. The oldest museum in the Netherlands is the Teylers Museum, but is there also an oldest museum in the world? And where and when did it open?

England, March 1683. A boat sails upstream from London on the Thames to Oxford. The flat-bottomed boat is loaded with 26 chests full of exotic treasures:the cloak of Pocahontas' father Powhatan, the mummified head of a dodo, palm fronds inscribed with Buddhist texts, and much more. After a six-day journey, the coffins are delivered to the doorstep of a brand-new, imposing building. Above the entrance is written in gold letters Musaeum Ashmolianum. It was built by the University of Oxford at the behest of the sender of the 26 chests and the museum's namesake, Elias Ashmole. Ashmole is donating his collection to the University of Oxford under a strange, because unusual condition:everyone can come and admire the collection. The world's first museum was a fact.

Or not? “Well, no, it's not that simple,” says Dr Mary Bouquet, anthropologist and museum historian at Utrecht University. “It just depends on what exactly you mean by a museum.” According to Bouquet, the essence of a museum is to 'capture' culturally relevant knowledge in objects so that that knowledge can be transferred. “If you look at it that way, the prehistoric cave paintings are perhaps the first museum. Moreover, man has been collecting objects for as long as he has been producing.”

Temples of the Muses

So the history of the modern museum goes back a bit further than 1683, Bouquet wants to say. At the most, the Ashmolean Museum was an important intermediate station in the development of the Western, institutionalized version of the museum. This development started in ancient Greece.

In the 340 BC Aristotle travels to Lesbos to study nature according to his own empirical laws. Aristotle keeps the plants he collects in what he calls a mouseion . calls – “temple to the muses.” Aristotle thus honors the goddesses of art and science with his collection of plants, which was intended for researchers. The example of Aristotle is followed half a century later with the construction of the famous Library of Alexandria, which also houses a mouseion.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, during the Renaissance, Aristotle's research methods are rediscovered and researchers flock to nature. It is also the time when the voyages of discovery open up a whole new world. Very soon special natural and human objects find their way to Europe. Wealthy Europeans start collecting and this is how the cabinets of curiosities are created:rooms crammed with stuffed animals, bones, shells, stones, foreign clothing and whatnot. Aristotle's terminology is also dusted off and the word museaum becomes fashionable for these collections.

Featured by the editors

MedicineWhat are the microplastics doing in my sunscreen?!

AstronomySun, sea and science

BiologyExpedition to melting land

According to Bouquet, this makes two of the three important qualities of the modern museum a fact. There is an ordered collection of objects that scientists use to arrive at new insights. Only the third characteristic, the opening to the public, is still missing. Not that the cabinets of curiosities were inaccessible. On the contrary:its owners were more than happy to make a good show for their guests. But of course you mainly impress people you want to impress, such as members of the nobility, scholars and ambassadors. You don't need the common people for that.

Rural people

This will change during the seventeenth century, as Jeffrey Abt describes in the handbook 'A companion to museum studies'. Relations between elite and people are slowly but surely shifting and cultural heritage is increasingly seen as a public matter. Collectors see the advantages of this:a stable institute, such as a university or a (local) government, guarantees the continued existence of the collection and, not unimportantly, the funding of research. As a result, cultural heritage is increasingly becoming a public property.

The collector and prominent intellectual Elias Ashmole decides to go a step further. He inherits an extensive collection from a befriended family, which must not only be made publicly available, but must also be made accessible to the public. In the statute of the Ashmolean Museum, he states 'that the curiosities will be exhibited throughout the year, except Sundays and public holidays, from 8 am to 11 am and from 2 to 5 pm.' This explicit opening to the general public is the reason that the Ashmolean Museum is designated by many experts as the first public museum in the world.

Because opening the doors for anyone who wanted to come and have a look – that was new. It remains to be seen whether this was actually an idealistic choice. Above all, Ashmole created a win-win situation for the University of Oxford and himself:the survival of his collection was guaranteed at no cost to the university – the museum was self-sufficient due to the entrance fees.

An idealistic choice or not, the English public saw his chance, according to the notes of a German scientist who visited the Ashmolean Museum in 1710. After he interrupted a first visit because it was blackened by the 'rural people', he noticed for a few days later surprised that 'even women' are allowed. The entrance fee was six pennies, the price of a hearty loaf of bread, but twice as cheap as a seat in the theater at the last rank.

Double roll

In the following decades, world-famous museums see the light of day, such as the British Museum in London (1753) and the Louvre in Paris (1793). In 1784, the Teylers Museum in Haarlem was the first museum in the Netherlands to open its doors to the public. This trend continued in the nineteenth century under the influence of democratization and the rise of the nation state.

Museums played a double role in this, says Mary Bouquet. “Citizens of the newly formed and democratic nation-state needed a story, a simplified representation of their history and the world around them. Museums were ideally suited for this. Moreover, the museums had to keep the men out of the pub and teach them something. Like parks and libraries, museums were an important instrument for the upliftment of the people.”