Art is constantly being presented to the public in new places, but for most people, museums remain the primary place for experiencing art. It is therefore important to be aware of what kind of a place a museum is and what kind of experiences of art and culture museums create.

About museology

A museum can be described briefly as a publicly accessible collection of valuable and important historical, scientific or artistic objects. But this raises a series of questions without simple answers. What do we want to preserve for posterity? Who decides what to preserve and what stories museums should tell? What is important about collections, and who uses them? These issues are debated throughout the realms of art, culture and natural science, and they have led to the creation of the interdisciplinary field of museology. Museology examines and discusses how museums have developed, what knowledge they convey, and what roles they have played in society at various times.

Various kinds of museum

Today we divide museums into three main categories: natural science museums, museums of cuktural history and art museums. It can therefore be difficult to talk about “the museum” as a single phenomenon. And even among art museums, there are large differences in the type of artwork the museums collect and exhibit as well as differences depending on whether it is a state, municipal or private museum. The latter distinction may not always be visible to museum guests. But the ownership form affects the museum’s financial foundation, its obligations, and ultimately who decides how the museum is run as well what “stories” the museum tells and how. In Denmark, state and state-authorized museums receive financial support from the state. This means that the museums are required to carry out the five main duties in the Danish Museum Act: acquisition, registration and preservation of objects as well as research and communication. These museums thus differ from other exhibition venues (such as art centers and galleries) that generally are not required to assemble collections or conduct research.

Along with libraries and archives, museums throughout history have reflected our attempts to understand the world and gather knowledge about it.

Historical background

Today, if you want to acquire knowledge of a subject, it is natural to turn on a computer and search for information on the Web. The Internet is our era’s version of a reference work and an attempt to gather and share knowledge. It reflects basically the same desire to explore and understand the world that underlies the creation of collections and museums. The development of museums is closely linked to the perception of the world and knowledge in various periods. Three key stages in the development of the museum are the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Modernist periods.

Renaissance art chambers

Renaissance curiosity cabinets and art chambers are considered the direct precursors of today’s modern museum. A crucial difference, however, was that the Renaissance collections were private and rarely publicly accessible. The collections belonged mainly to princes and nobility and also to scholars. Besides being a source of understanding and knowledge, the collections were of course also status symbols that indicated power and wealth.

The curious gaze

In the early 1600s, Ole Worm (1588-1654), a Danish physician and classical antiquity researcher, established a well-reputed collection that is thought to be one of the first museums in the world. After Worm’s death, the museum was incorporated in Frederick III’s Royal Cabinet of Curiosities.

“I want the people to see and learn here!”
Peter the Great on his art chamber in St. Petersburg, 1714

The illustration shows Museum Wormianum, whose diversity was typical for collections of the period.

This room is packed with objects. Fish, birds, a kayak and a small polar bear hang from the ceiling. On the shelves are small sculptures, taxidermic animals and boxes of stones, bones, conches and other objects. The walls are covered with swords, spears and antlers. From our current perspective, such a collection might seem messy and confusing. Scientific, artistic and cultural objects are not segregated in the same way as they are today, and it is hard to see a system in the collection. Worm’s collection, for example, contains a round, patterned marble stone that resembles a globe. This stone appears to be a natural object by virtue of its material but also an artistic object by virtue of its appearance. Things are symbolic and reflect the great order in the universe in which everything is connected to everything else, and collections were perceived as a kind of image of the world in miniature. And yet – Worm’s collection also contains an egg reportedly born of a Norwegian woman. Each object is in the collection because it is a rarity – that is, it is special and stands out from the ordinary. The collections of this period reflect a fundamental curiosity about the world’s diversity and wonders. They also reflect an interest in the new worlds that opened up in the exploratory and commercial travels of the period.

The museum in the Enlightenment 

With the Enlightenment, beginning in the late 1600s, came a significant change, both in what and how one collected and in the people for whom the collections were intended. While museums and collections previously belonged to royalty, the nobility and scholars, in the social transition to democracy and nation-states, they were given an important educational role. The museum’s task became making citizens an informed and freer people and thus creating a better society. Europe’s major royal collections were converted to state collections in the second half of the 1700s and the early 1800s.
  This illustration from 1787, which shows the Louvre in Paris, gives an idea of what museums looked like and how they were used at the time. Pietro Antonio Martini, Exposition au Salon du Louvre in 1787.

A large hall full of people who are eagerly gesticulating and discussing things. Adolescents, children and even dogs have also found their way into the exhibition. On the walls hang paintings from floor to ceiling. The motifs in the paintings are portraits or action-oriented scenes that take place in antique surroundings. The paintings hang closely together in the so-called salon-style hanging, which was the preferred way of exhibiting art in the period.

National museum, national identity

After the French Revolution (1789-99), the French Emperor Napoleon had a vision of the museum’s role in building up a national identity. He wanted to create an awareness among people that they belonged to a nation and were linked together by a common historical background. The museums were to present “the true history” that their visitors should learn from and could identify with. The assertion of a national identity also involved positioning a nation and its values in relation to other cultures that were perceived as “primitive” and exotic, for example. Napoleon’s vision was influential in many parts of Europe.
  An imposing temple-like building located centrally in an open square. The architecture is adorned with a dome, ancient columns and an imposing stairway. The photograph shows the National Gallery in London (1825).

During this period, the number of museums rose sharply, and magnificent museum buildings became a prominent part of the cityscape throughout Europe. Although the collections were no longer royal, the museums were still monumental in their expression and now signaled the nation’s greatness and splendor. Antiquity served as a model for the young nations – the cradle of democracy and the Enlightenment. This was also apparent in the fascination with ancient motifs in the visual arts.

Thorvaldsen's Museum (1848) was the first art museum in Denmark. The collection was created by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), who lived in Rome for more than 40 years. He brought antiquity to Copenhagen both through his own sculptures and his collection of artwork from the classical period.

Categories and systems

With the Enlightenment began the segregation of collections on the basis of a scientific division into natural history, cultural history and art. The collections were organized according to new principles in accordance with the scholarly mode of classifying and dividing up the world into universal systems such as families, species, eras and so on. In the same development, the museums removed things that before had been collected because of an interest in curiosities. These things were now considered an expression of superstitions, errors or chance, not things that could be taken seriously from a scholarly perspective. The museums and the way of organizing knowledge about the world in the Enlightenment are easier for us to understand today than Renaissance art chambers because museums today still generally work in the same manner.

Development and progress

Development and historical progress became central concepts at this time and governed the way people perceived culture and science. At art museums, art was divided into periods that would show a linear historical development from antiquity to the Renaissance, the Baroque and Enlightenment neoclassicism. Works were categorized and displayed by theme, such as landscape painting, portraits and historical paintings, with the latter ranking highest because they were educational. But a belief in evolution and progress also led people to rank their own period highest.

“We will destroy the museums, the libraries and the academies of every kind and fight moralist, feminism and every kind of opportunistic and utilitarian cowardice.”
From the Futurist Manifesto, 1909.

At the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at Louisiana in 2004.

The modern art museum

With modernism in the late nineteenth century, art museums underwent fundamental changes. The individual became more important than the good citizen, and the present and the future became more important than history. Artists distanced themselves from history by experimenting with and against tradition. The museum as an institution came to stand for tradition and the petty bourgeois, which many artists denounced. They chose to exhibit their work elsewhere, for example at small galleries. Formal experimentation and innovation took precedence.

MoMA’s architecture in a modernist idiom, with a clean glass facade and the entrance to the museum directly from the street level, is far from the temple-like buildings that still dominated the museum architecture of the period. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) is a place that has had a great influence on the development of modern art museums. When it opened in 1929, it was the first museum devoted exclusively to modern art. The “white cube” aesthetic has been dominant here from the start. The “white cube” is a term that refers to white walls, substantial distance between the exhibited works in a row, indirect lighting, no furniture, low-key signage, and so on. This was the preferred way of exhibiting artwork and artifacts throughout the twentieth century. Rather than expressing history or a specific location, exhibition spaces were to recede further into the background, be discreet and neutral, and let the artwork “speak for itself”. You can almost say that the work of art is staged as an independent “subject”‘ that meets the observer one-to-one with as few distractions as possible.

We have come to the point where we see the room before we see the art. [...] A painting emerges from a white, ideal space that perhaps more than any single work of art is the archetypal image of twentieth century art.” Brian O’Doherty, 1976.

From spectator to user – the museum as part of the experience economy

In recent decades, museums have taken on a much more outgoing role. One speaks directly of a shift from collection-driven museums to audience-oriented museums because many museums today supplement their exhibition activities with other cultural events such as concerts, lectures, film, well-stocked museum shops, cafés and restaurants, room rentals and extensive arrangements for children, young people and adults. Behind these changes, there seems to be a desire and perhaps even a requirement for a democratization of art and its institutions that prompt museums to relinquish their lofty, highbrow status and instead accommodate a wider audience. Attendance figures today are a measurable success parameter that are used partly to justify the receipt of public support and partly to prove that a museum is worthwhile for sponsors.

The museum as urban logo

With its expressive form and distinctive waterfront location, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, attracts about 1 million visitors a year. It is a good example of a museum that has succeeded in giving a rundown area a “cultural facelift”. Using museums as a breeding ground for regional changes by creating a new identity and drawing power, many locations have staged a recovery, for example with the Tate Modern or with the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Ishøj, Denmark.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The museum has spawned the epithet “the Guggenheim effect” – the tendency for a city to see a recovery in its tourism and economy because of a prestigious building. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

What should be preserved and where?

“Museums used to be places where you learned about the past and worked on what you learned with reverence. [Museums] are to an increasing degree places where you go to think about the present and plan for the future.” New Museology (Art & Design Profile), 1991.

Museums generally play a prominent role when it comes to assembling and presenting a (shared) identity and history. In times of war, therefore, museums can be a deliberate target that the opposition wants to destroy as a symbolic gesture. Other significant historical events, such as the dissolution of colonial occupation, are reflected in museums and raise general questions about what we should preserve, who decides what to preserve, and what stories should museums tell. This prompts another big question, namely, where should things be preserved? In many places there is a desire to recover art and artefacts that were collected in European museums in the colonial period. The same is true of many antique objects that scientific expeditions and archaeological excavations have brought to museums far from the places where the objects were found. In Denmark, some of these issues have been raised regarding Greenland, for example.



Our expectations about museums are colored by both past experiences and impressions from other media such as film.

Find some movies in which a museum appears. Consider the kind of image of museums they show. What actions take place in the museum? Who is frequenting the museum? How does this fit with your experience of visiting a museum?

Tip for students: You can find some examples by searching for “museum scene” or something similar on YouTube.

Teaching tip: Interdisciplinary activity with eg. drama or media studies: Use the assignment above as a warm-up to thinking about the museum as a scene for a story.

B An assignment at the museum TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS OF A MUSEUM

In many places, a museum is intended to appear as a “neutral” setting for the artwork exhibited.

Use a camera to explore the museum as a setting. First, take a photograph that shows clearly that you are at a museum. What makes this particular place “museum-like”?

Then select a work of art and take two photographs: one that highlights the museum space where it appears and one that obscures the museum space. You may take only one photo of each type, so take some time to plan your photos. (Be aware that photographing may be prohibited in certain areas.)

C An assignment between classes COMPARE MUSEUMS

Museums vary. Some differences are striking, for example the architecture. Other differences, such as who gives financial support to museums, are less visible. Find three or four museums in your community or on the Web and identify their differences and similarities. Consider some physical differences; for example, how are the windows designed and how does it affect the rooms and the experience of the museum?

What makes a museum appealing for you?

Tip for students: You can find ideas in the Danish Agency for Culture’s overview of museums in Denmark (in Danish):

D A longer interdisciplinary project PLAN THE SPACE IN FRONT OF A MUSEUM

The entrance to a museum is the first thing that visitors encounter – not only the building itself and the facade but also the surrounding space. This first impression creates expectations about the place you are entering.

Create a proposal for the entrance to a museum and the space in front of it. It may be a fictitious museum or an existing one.

Consider how museum guests are welcomed when they arrive. What expectations for a museum visit would you like to create? What materials should be used? What should the scale be? Should there be trees, bushes or flowers? The possibility of sitting down? How does one come to the museum?

In your research, you can explore museum entrance sites both on the Web and in your community. Spend some time there, and take notes on these aspects: Who comes here, and how do they behave? Is it beautiful? Cozy? Quiet? Lively? What mood does it put people in?

Photograph both the entire scene and also the details (materials, plants, benches, etc.). Consider what elements you would choose to include and not to include. For this assignment, you can choose freely what materials to use and what medium to present the result in (photoshop, collage, model, sketch, short text, etc.).

Teaching tip: Interdisciplinary assignment, with social studies, for example: The activity can be used to discuss the museum as an institution and a symbol.

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