People have collected art and items of cultural and natural history to preserve memory, to understand the world around us, to satisfy our curiosity for the exotic, and to possess beauty and time itself. Museums collect to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of humankind, to document history and the evolution of the Earth, to understand the universe, to conduct research, and to provide education to the general public. The history of museums, however, has largely been seen through architectural endeavors—to be blunt, the competitive actions of men to build the grandest museums possible in Europe and America. But, if we want a more profound understanding of museums, we should look at the museum not only as an institution, but also as an idea. The essence of a museum, simply put, lies in just three words: “preservation,” “education,” and “public.” There are unending arguments over where and when the first museum appeared—and which country can lay claim to the oldest and greatest museum! But, keeping just these three words in mind, here are some women and men, from ancient to historic times—born in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East—who are barely mentioned in the history of museums and yet who were thinking far ahead of their times!
Princess Ennigaldi’s Museum in Ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq)
While today’s conception of a museum developed in 17th– and 18th-century Europe, the idea of museums did indeed exist in the ancient world. The earliest physical evidence for collecting antiquities dates back 2,500 years to the city of Ur in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). While excavating a palace occupied by the Babylonian King Nabonidus and his daughter Ennigaldi, British archaeologist Leonard Woolley came across a room with artifacts that spanned 1,500 years of history, and were themselves 700 to 1,400 years older than the architecture in which they were found. The room, which had never been previously disturbed, was located in a school for priestesses, supervised by Ennigaldi.
Evidently, the Babylonian princess had purposefully collected and preserved cultural artifacts from many different periods of Mesopotamian history. Furthermore, these artifacts were accompanied with information about the objects, which was inscribed in three languages on clay. By preserving and displaying antiquities, and providing educational information in different languages for others to read, Ennigaldi had essentially created a museum.
However, by providing information in multiple languages, Ennigaldi’s thinking was two and a half millennia ahead of her time! During the past four centuries, museums have primarily provided written labels for objects or wall text in the nation’s official language. Some museums do provide translations of labels, but many times this is minimal identification with no explanation. Some national museums employ foreign language tour guides, but this service has timing limitations. In the 21st century, mobile phone and translation technologies might eventually overcome the language issue in museums, but providing multilingual information to improve accessibility still has a long way to go.
From the Mouseion of Ancient Egypt to the Smithsonian in Washington
The word museum comes from the Mouseion, an institution for research and learning that was established in Alexandria by Pharaoh Ptolemy I (c. 367 BC –282 BC/BCE) and was later expanded by his son Pharaoh Ptolemy II (c. 308–246 BC/BCE). Ptolemy was a Greek general, companion, and historian of Alexander the Great and established his dynasty and domination over Egypt after Alexander’s death. The Greek word mouseion (or its Latin equivalent, musaeum) commemorated the nine Muses (ancient Greek goddesses) who were considered the source of all knowledge and presided over the arts and sciences.
Ptolemy’s Mouseion had a complex of magnificent buildings and grounds that included the famous Library of Alexandria, botanical gardens, a zoo, an anatomy lab, an astronomical observatory, lecture halls, and natural science collections, as well as over a thousand salaried scholars (in philosophy, music, poetry, history, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and biology). It operated more like a university, from the 3rd century BC/BCE to the 3rd century CE/AD. But, importantly, it was a comprehensive, educational and research institution that was totally supported by public funding—echoes of which can be found in museums today.
In its founding document, the Smithsonian Institution was created as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” (almost identical to the objectives of Pharaoh Ptolemy). The Smithsonian is the world’s largest research and museum complex, with 6,000 employees (including 500 scientists), 19 museums and galleries (together with the National Zoological Park and research stations). The Smithsonian Libraries (https://library.si.edu/), founded in 1846 simultaneously with the museum, is the largest and most diverse museum library in the world—very much similar to the intent behind the Library of Alexandria. With annual public funding from the U.S. Congress, the Smithsonian is the modern embodiment of Ptolemy’s Mouseion and Library, even though it is not presented as such in museum history.
Empress Kōmyō of Japan and the Shōsō-in
The Shōsō-in (a repository), which is part of the Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple complex at Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, has continuously operated from its establishment in the 8th century CE/AD to the present and may be the oldest museum that is still in existence. The construction of the Tōdai-ji complex was ordered by Emperor Shōmu (701–756) as part of a national program of Buddhist temple construction across Japan. However, the origin of the Shōsō-in at Nara as an art treasury post-dates the emperor’s death, when Empress Kōmyō (701–760) donated over 600 items of art and cultural heritage to the Tōdai-ji to express her love for her deceased husband, Emperor Shōmu. She continued to make a series of similar donations from 756 to 759, all of which were stored at the Shōsō-in.
Since the Shōsō-in was to be a repository for valuable collections, it was constructed ingeniously with a natural environmental regulation system. First, the floor of the building was elevated 8 feet above the ground on vertical logs. This made circulation of air underneath the building possible and protected the structure against water damage. In addition, the 45-foot-tall building was constructed in log cabin style, called azekura, using beams of Japanese cypress cut in triangular cross-section and using no nails. Azekura construction has a strong resistance to earthquakes. The building was also well ventilated—the crevices between the wall beams close when the atmosphere outside is moist and open slightly when it is dry, thus stabilizing the humidity of the interior. The art and artifacts themselves were stored in chests made from the same cedar wood that is known for its durability. All of these construction features made it possible to preserve the treasures in perfect state for 1,300 years.
The Shōsō-in collection of Japanese treasures include furniture, musical instruments, silks and clothing, weaponry, Buddhist religious objects, and documents, as well as a variety of items originating from Tang Dynasty China, India, Iran, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Today, the Shōsō-in has over 9,000 objects in its collections and is on the UNESCO register of World Heritage Sites. It is also a National Treasure of Japan. Although these collections are not open to the public, selections are shown at Nara National Museum once a year in the autumn. However, critically important was the idea to create a safe art storage building with a natural environmental control system, that ended up preserving cultural heritage for well over a millennium. This is a model of thinking that can be applied worldwide today, since many nations and small communities do not have the financial resources to build state-of-the-art storage for their museum collections, and the world needs more cost-efficient ways of reducing sources of ozone-depleting emissions, such as air-conditioning systems.
European “Wonder Rooms” and the Tradescant Ark
Beginning in 15th-century Europe, affluent members of society such as the nobility and businesspeople would curate collections of unique items that were referred to as Wunderkammern (German for “wonder rooms”), also called “cabinets of curiosities.” The philosophy of maintaining a Wunderkammer was to encourage curiosity, promote an encyclopedic knowledge, and also enhance personal prestige. Some typical items found in Wunderkammern include scientific artifacts, works of art, and specimens of animals and plants. These personal collections could number in the hundreds to thousands. The colonial nature of these private collections and early museums was also apparent in the expropriation of cultural heritage from all over the world.
However, from this era of Wonder Rooms, the amazing story of the Tradescant family collections is a Hollywood-style “soap opera” (for lack of a better analogy) that gave us the first public museum. The Tradescants are themselves fascinating, in that they were working people and, most definitely, not born wealthy. John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570s–1638), held a number of jobs as a gardener for members of English nobility, including King Charles I. Tradescant had numerous opportunities to travel—the Low Countries, Arctic Russia, the Levant, North Africa—where he collected plants, seeds and bulbs everywhere. He had also assembled a collection of curiosities of natural history and ethnography. Tradescant leased property in London to house his collections, which became known as “The Ark.”
The Ark was a typical cabinet of curiosities, but in 1629 it became the first museum in England open to the general public. To visit these private collections, you typically had to know somebody. But anyone who could pay an admission fee of sixpence (about the price of a pound of butter) could visit Tradescant’s Ark. Continental Europeans were shocked to learn that even “country folk” who could pay admission were allowed entry. The Ark was a popular attraction for London society, which came in a steady stream to marvel at the exhibits and the beautiful gardens. His son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608 –1662), was a botanist and gardener, like his father, and succeeded him as head gardener to King Charles I. He also undertook plant-collecting expeditions to Virginia between 1628 and 1637. He published the contents of his father’s collection as a catalogue entitled Musaeum Tradescantianum—the first of its kind to be published in Britain, and still today a landmark in the museum profession.
John Tradescant the Younger wanted to donate the family’s collection to Oxford University; but he wanted his second wife, Hester, to enjoy its possession and the income from admission fees to the museum during the remainder of her lifetime. He had become friends with Elias Ashmole, a lawyer and an avid collector of curiosities, who inserted himself in Tradescant’s life through the cataloguing of the collections. Ashmole drew up a deed of gift and deceived John and his wife into signing it on the pretense that the museum would, on John’s death, be owned jointly by Hester and Ashmole himself. John later contested the deed and began a long running court battle against Ashmole, who continued suing Hester even after John’s death. The court awarded Ashmole sole ownership with the provision that the collection was to remain in Hester’s possession until her death.
Ashmole moved into the house next to Tradescant’s home under the pretext of maintaining the collection. He continually harassed Hester, and she drowned mysteriously in her pond. [Ashmole himself led a controversial life, marrying wealthy women considerably older than himself and financially benefiting from them, as well as being sued multiple times by his own wife and by numerous noble families.] After acquiring the Tradescant Ark, Ashmole cut a deal with Oxford University to house the collection and to construct a special building for it. In 1675, Oxford agreed, and the result was the Ashmolean (not Tradescant) Museum, which opened in 1683. The abandoned church where the Tradescants’ graves were discovered was converted into a Garden Museum in honor of the Tradescants and recently re-opened.
The most important legacy of Tradescant’s Ark was its recognition, in the 17th century, as a unique educational asset in London. It was the first museum that was open to children. A schoolmaster wrote at the time: “Of all places in England (it is) best for the improvement of children in their education, because of the variety of objects which daily present themselves to them, or may easily be seen (at) Mr John Tradescant’s.” The accessible admission price started by the Tradescants continued at the Ashmolean Museum, which holds the distinction of being the first museum, not owned privately or by royalty, that was open to children and the general public.
By contrast, the British Museum opened to the public in 1759—75 years after the Ashmolean—but with a highly prejudicial, adults-only admission policy. People had to apply in writing ahead of time for an admission ticket, indicating their names, financial condition/occupation, and place of residence. The museum then judged who was worthy of admission, and these “acceptable” persons had to re-apply a second time for tickets. Only ten people were admitted for a period of three hours, escorted by officers. Now, in the 21st century, the issue of banning children from museums is being seriously discussed yet again. When John Tradescant, the Elder, opened his museum in 1629, he was most definitely 400 years ahead of his time!