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What is a museum?

A museum is a permanent public or private institution that may be for-profit or not; it is open to the public and is at the service of society and its development. Museums acquire, conserve, restore, research, share, and exhibit assets that are of cultural interest.

The term museum comes from the Latin musēum; this, in turn, is from the Greek museion, a temple and place dedicated to the muses who inspire music and art. This is why the word museum immediately evokes the word art. However, there are many types of museums, including those dedicated to more pragmatic aspects of life.

What are the characteristics of a museum?

The architecture of a museum must consider lighting, accessibility, space distribution, preservation of cultural heritage, security, logistics, etc. As for collections, they aren’t a simple accumulation of objects and documents: they must be collected, stored, and displayed coherently following conceptual threads.

From the point of view of communication, a museum has to develop various strategies to achieve one of its primary objectives: dissemination. To that end, it uses tools like catalogs, temporary exhibitions, conferences, guided visits, social media, etc.

Museums must also have a research area, and there should be communication and collaboration between them to achieve the common goal of preservation and dissemination.

How are museums classified? 

Museums are classified for organizational and statistical purposes according to their ownership, the geographic scope of the collections, and their thematic content. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) sets forth this classification according to the thematic content of the collections:

  1. Art
  2. Natural History
  3. Archaeology
  4. Monographic
  5. History
  6. Science and Technology
  7. Agriculture and products from the land

What are the biggest museums around the world? 

According to the book The 10 Best of Everything, by National Geographic, 2021, the 10 best museums and galleries in the world are:

1. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, United States

It is the largest museum complex in the world, with 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and several research facilities. It has more than 137 million objects.

The main attractions are the Wright brothers’ airship, the Apollo 11 command module, and the original of the United States anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner.

2. The Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Before it was a museum, the building was a medieval fortress and the palace of the kings of France. The famous Leoh Ming Pei pyramid became the main entrance in 1989.

The collections span from ancient times to the first half of the 19th century, and the main attractions are the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Mona Lisa.

3. The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

It comprises galleries, ancient temples, settlement excavations, and a glass floor to walk through history and see up close what Athenian life was like.

Its main attraction is the Parthenon frieze, mounted on a structure of the original dimensions.

4. State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia

It occupies six buildings with a baroque structure. It was founded by Catherine the Great, who also bought 255 paintings by the world’s greatest masters. Currently, it preserves more than three million items dating from the Stone Age to the beginning of the 20th century.

The main attractions are the gallery of the golden treasure and the private collection of Nicholas II, which contains paintings, drawings, and medals.

5. British Museum, London, England

It has an archeology and ethnography collection with more than eight million objects, from prehistoric bones and pieces of the Parthenon, to rooms of Assyrian palaces and gold jewelry.

The main attraction is the Egyptian Gallery, with the second-best collection in the world, including the Rosetta Stone (196 BC).

6. Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Here is the collection gathered by the royal family over centuries. It was opened to the public in 1819 by Fernando VII. It shows the greatest examples of Spanish painting, as well as extensive collections of Italian and Flemish work. 

The main attractions are The Three Graces by Rubens; Las meninas by Velázquez; and The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch.

7. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States

Its collection of more than two million items includes European paintings, Egyptian antiquities, and American art and crafts, to name a few; it spans a wide period and geographic space.

The main attractions are Adam and Eve, by Dürer; the Tomb of Perneb (circa 2440 BC) and the Temple of Dendur (circa 23-10 BC); and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

8. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

It consists of twenty-two collections created by the High Pontiffs over centuries. It has classical sculpture, a gallery with medieval and Renaissance paintings, an Egyptian and an Etruscan wing, and even contemporary art.

The main attractions are the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael rooms.

9. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

It has the best collection worldwide of Renaissance masters, but also works by the great medieval, Baroque, and Mannerist painters.

The main attraction is The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

10. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It was founded in 1800 to display the collections of Dutch statesmen, made up of some 900,000 pieces of Dutch art and history.

Its main attraction consists of the paintings of the 18th-century Dutch masters (Ruysdael, Frans Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt), notably The Night Watch by Rembrandt.

What challenges are in store?

New technologies entail a cultural revolution that is also affecting the perception of museums. Currently, museologists are seeking to incorporate virtual reality to achieve immersive experiences and provide easier access to information, as well as enhancing public interest.

What are the reference points in terms of museums in Spain?

Spain has more than 1500 museums and museum collections. The Prado Museum is likely the most important; its collection from the 16th to 19th centuries includes Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, and Murillo, as well as Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, and Bosch. For contemporary art, the Reina Sofía museum, also in Madrid, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao are noteworthy.

The Directory of Spanish Museums and Collections offers the complete list of museums in Spain. 

Fun facts about museums

  • The term museion designated a complex that served as a sanctuary and research center built in Alexandria around 280 BC by Ptolemy I Soter. It disappeared in the burning of the library of Alexandria.
  • The Ennigaldi-Nanna museum was built at the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire around 530 BC. It contained artifacts from Mesopotamian civilizations, including a clay drum with a cartouche written in three languages.
  • In 2018, the Louvre and the National Museum of China received more than 8 million tourists. The Prado had around 3 million.
  • In Spain, visitors interested in culture account for 10% of all visitors. The museums are visited by more than 12 million tourists.
  • There are so many pieces at the Smithsonian that, if you saw one piece per minute day and night for ten years straight, you’d have only seen 10% of all of them. 

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