. GLOCOM Platform
. . debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
. Newsletters
. Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #61: April 11, 2005

Museum Education: Part 3 - History of Museums and Museum Education

Jack Hiroki IGUCHI (Professor, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Aomori University, Japan)

It is important to ascertain the history of museums and museum education in order to develop new museology for the future. Especially the ideas of psychologist and educators in terms of museology and pedagogy should be discussed. However as Bassett said in 1992 there was no comprehensive history of the growth of education in museums in either Britain or elsewhere (Bassett D. 1992: 623), because this subject is a quite new field.

In addition, from a study of the definitions of a museum, it can be seen that museum education is vitally important. In other words, museums must exist for the education of the public. Consequently it is important to look into not only the history of museum education but also the history of museums themselves.


The idea of educational use of historical material for teaching was begun by Aristotele (384-322 BC) in Ancient Greece (Lewis G. 1992a: 6). He taught that knowledge must be based on the direct observation of nature, that scientific theory must follow fact, and that knowledge can be categorized along logical principles (Burcaw G. 1990: 18). Also in Greece, the Hellenistic Museum of Alexandria was set up. It was a centre of research and learning, and the breadth of outlook established there has remained a model for the establishment of later museums (Chadwick A. 1980: 3). However after the Greeks, museums as such disappeared for hundreds of years (Burecau G. 1990: 18).

Ancient Chinese were also keen to collect historical objects. It might have started from the Shang dynasty (around from the sixteenth to the eleventh centuries BC), and Hsien T (190-220) established a room devoted to portraits of his ministers (Lewis G. 1992a: 7). However these objects were just for emperor's family treasures. Similarly, Islam in the sixth century widely collected artifacts because of spread of its culture (Lewis G. 1992a: 6). And in Japan in the eighth century, Shoh-soh-in, a storehouse of the Tohdaiji Temple in Nara which stored the Emperor Shohmu's treasures, was constructed and its fine contents still exist today, but not in furtherance of the museum education idea at that time.

In the early Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) stated that "human cognition is stronger in regard to the sensibilia", and by sensibilia, he is referring to "sense impressions" or "data" collected through the use of the senses, in other words, the processes of human relationships to objects (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1992a: 671).

During Renaissance the most important method of study was reading and writing argumentative and complicated theories using lengthy prose. As a reaction to this idea, the seventeenth century philosophers and educators again emphasized "solid philosophy", the direct study of nature. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an empiricist, was instrumental in promulgating this new approach to knowing, and John Amas Comenius (1592-1670) applied Bacon's ideas to education (Ibid): "the first education should be of the perceptions, then of the memory, then of the understanding, then of the judgment (Calkins, 1980: 165-172). These ideas, Bacon and Comenius are generally acceptable to education as a whole, especially museum education.

In addition, in the fifteenth century, in Italy, many of the collections formed by the ruling houses and they were available to visitors, and in the sixteenth century, the Venetian Republic appeared to have been one of the earliest public bodied to receive collections, forming the basis for the present archaeological museum in Venice (Lewis G. 1992a: 8,9).

In the sixteenth century in England, an exhibition or a museum was called a "cabinet", but one of the meanings of this was that of a summer house or a bower in a garden. "The garden came to signify a new sense of the possibilities inherent in a leisured and cultivated existence, life lived with a sense of style" (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1992b: 126,128). Perhaps this was one of the earliest examples of environmental education through museums.


In the seventeenth century, the collections of John Tradescant (1577-1638), an English naturalist, were opened from 1625 to the public, especially for the education of children (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1992a: 671), where he created a botanic garden and brought together a collection or rarities which contained stuffed birds and animals, and a wide variety of artifacts from different parts of the world (Lewis G. 1992b: 23, Chadwick A. 1980: 7). Later, this became the founding collection for the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford given by Elias Ashmole, a successor of those collections from John Tradescant junior, and opened to the public in 1683 (Lewis G. 1992a: 10). It was the first public museum, existing for the public benefit in the UK.

Needless to say, one of the most famous museums in the world is the British Museum, originated through Robert Harly, first Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), who formed an outstanding library of books and manuscripts. Also, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose natural history collections originated during his stay in Jamaica, was to become the other founding collector of the British Museum (Lewis G. 1992b: 23). Early education services to the public in the British Museum were really in the form a lip-service to the ideal (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1992a: 672), however Marjorie Caygill emphasizes that "the British Museum has the distinction of being the first national, public and secular museum in the world" (Caygill M. 1985: 3). Other collections, the Ashmolean in Oxford and the Louvre in Paris, were earlier, but the British Museum was the only institution open to the public and for all studious and curious persons (Ibid).

As previously stated, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Lourve in Paris was the first free public museum, set up for the public benefit and established as part of the state education system. Cheap catalogues were produced, written for the visitor and translated into several languages (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1992a: 671). Also in England, the museums that were established at around the turn of the century by both Mechanics Institutes and Literacy and Philosophical Societies had specific educational objectives. They were seen as one of the various forms of provision for adult education (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1991: 11).

The history of museums in the USA is relatively new. The first public museum in the USA was founded at Charleston, S.C. in 1773, and it remains in operation today. Also in 1785, Charles Wilson Peale, a portrait painter of renown, had an art gallery in his home and showed visitors his artifacts such as shells, minerals, and mounted birds, which formed the basic for the Peale Museum in Philadelphia (Glaser J. 1986: 7-8).

However if we think about the history of museums in the USA, it is vital to look into the Smithsonian Institution, established in 1846. James Smithsonian (1765-1829), whose money established the Smithsonian, was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland and Elizabeth Maice. The Institution is an enormous and complex organization. The Smithsonian's museums include: the National Museum of Natural History; the National Air and Space Museum; the Freer Gallery of Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; and the National Museum of American History. Especially, in the technology galleries, the ways technologies were used is demonstrated and explained through graphic, real exhibits, audio-visual presentations and interactive displays (Butler S. 1992: 51).


During the nineteenth century in the UK, small collections were established in schools, and also Mechanics Institutions created small museums as an integral part of their educational work. In addition the "object-lesson" was a major feature of schooling following child-centred theories of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, who inherited the earlier ideas of Bacon and Comenius (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1992a: 672).

In this century, one of the noteworthy education services in the UK was a school loan service. The first loan service in the UK was in fact established by Henry Higgins, first President of the Museum Association in 1984 (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1991b: 29). Also the most notable event for museums in the UK in this century was the Great Exhibition of 1851, which helped establish the Science Museum in London. The displays embodied Victorian ideas of progress, and they suggested needs for improvement of technical or scientific education (Butler S. 1992: 19).

The question of labeling and interpretation was generally also under debate at this time in the UK and one of the ideas was that a public museum should as far as possible be self-explanatory without the aid of a guide book (Lewis G. 1992b: 31). In addition, in the 1880s, a list of "useful rules to keep in mind on visiting a museum" was drawn up to help the visitors (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1991b: 16-17). Some of these, concerned with sensory perception, are as follows:

  1. "Avoid attempting to see too much".
  2. "Remember that one specimen or one article well seen is better than a score of specimens casually inspected.
  3. "Remember there is something new to see every time you go".
  4. "See slowly, observe closely, and think much upon what you see".
  5. (Ibid)

In spite of the new movement towards better museum education, the British Museum (Natural History Museum), London, which opened to the public in1881, had many problems in terms of educational exhibition. Miles states that exhibitions that arose from the early planning of the museum must have presented the lay visitor with a puzzling arrangement of objects, each carefully placed beyond his reach, with a label in a language he could barely understand (Miles R. 1988: 3).

However it is true that the method of educational exhibition has been improving globally. In the USA, due both to the massive immigration from Europe and to the Industrial Revolution, major changes to museums were marked. Not only was there a growth of new museums, but attitudes changed and museums opened their doors to the public the educational nature of museums took on greater importance (Glaser J.R. 1986: 8).

In Japan, in 1871, a museum to encourage industry and the development of natural resources was opened. These collections formed the basis of the Tokyo National Museum and the National Science Museum in Tokyo. This latter museum had a strong educational bias when it opened to the public in 1877 (Lewis G. 1992a: 15).


In the first half of this century in the UK, "the development of educational services in museums has been sporadic and haphazard" (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1992a: 673). There are various reasons suggested as to why this was the case. These include two World Wars and the severe economic depression of the 1930s (Lewis G. 1992b: 33). However there is the evidence that "by the beginning of the 1930s, the educational establishment was at last beginning to take notice of museum education. With the encouragement of the Standing Commission, the Board of Education published some guidelines" (Hooper-Greenhill E. 1991b: 40) that is "Museums and the schools; Memorandum on the possibility of increased cooperation between public museums and public educational institutions" (Board of Education, 1931).

Also Sir Henry Miers, the former President of the Museum Association, suggests in his report in 1928 that museums should be formed in every town, and should clearly define collecting policies, organised loan services and circulating exhibitions for educational purposes and traveling exhibitions for rural areas. He stressed the need for museums to be under a full-time qualified curator rather than a librarian as was often the case (Lewis G. 1992b: 34).

Another notable idealist of educational exhibitions was Henry Lyons, former Director of the Science Museum in London. Importantly, Lyons recognized that the most important visitor was the non-specialist who probably had very little knowledge of science and engineering, and he opened the children's gallery in 1931. Also he was keen to encourage temporary displays (Butler S. 1992: 29-30), which were planned to open for the short term such as loan exhibitions, travelling exhibitions and seasonal exhibitions.

Outside the UK, one of the notable educational exhibitions is the Palais de la Decouverte which was established as an offshoot of an international exhibition in 1937. Lectures, films, outreach programs and laboratory facilities were also offered to visitors (Butler S. 1992: 45). In addition, the Deutsches Museum, Munich in Germany, which formally opened to the public in 1925, is one of the most influential museums of technology in the world (Ibid: 48).
After the Second World War, the need for educational services in museums has increased. In the UK, for six years during the 1950s, the BBC screened its highly successful quiz program, "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral ? " in which different museums challenged a panel of experts to identify objects from their collections (Lewis G. 1992b: 37).

By the 1960s, the character of museums began to change in several significant ways. Concerning science museums, Butler suggests that firstly, exhibitions were becoming less the responsibility of individual curators and more the product of team efforts involving designers, and secondly, the exhibitions themselves have become less to do with objects and more to do with subjects or themes (Butler S. 1992: 32-33).

Also, Frank Oppenheimer's contribution to the development of educational exhibitions is significant. After the Second World War, although he was blacklisted as a member of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945, he began to work in the University of London in 1965, and visited many science museums throughout Europe, and in 1968 he published "A Rationale for a Science Museum" incorporating the psychology of perception. He went on to outline five main sections based on hearing, vision, taste and smell, tactile sensations including perception of hot and cold. His idea was realized in the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1969 (Ibid: 90).

In addition, the Ontario Science Center, opened in 1969, Toronto, Canada, runs highly educational projects. "A number of basic principles were agreed at the outset: visitors should be able to touch as many exhibitions as possible, and exhibits should arouse the curiosity of the visitor" (Ibid: 85).

Recently, visitor surveys have been seen as vital for running museums effectively. Hence many psychologists research into museology like Richard Gregory, who is a psychologist of international reputation whose writings on visual perception have become well known such as "Illusions in Art and Nature" in 1973. Also Roger Miles, in the Natural History Museum in London, the author of "The Design of Educational Exhibits" in 1982, now, a world famous adviser on education exhibitions. He and Gregory designed the section on perception of the Human Biology Gallery in the Natural History Museum, London in the 1970s (Ibid: 90-91). In the USA, the "Center for Social Design" in Jacksonville State University runs Visitor Studies Conference regularly to enhance visitors' interest in the museums.

Another new movement of the museum world is to conserve not only so-called museum objects but also "cultural heritage" and "natural world", such as open-air museums like Ironbridge Museums, Telford, UK, or "ecomuseums" in France, which include culture and the natural world. Especially ecology galleries ask visitors how to save the earth through exhibits like the Natural History Museum in London.

This section has looked into the history of museums and museum education from ancient times to the present day. Throughout this, there are some useful points to improve museum education services, like Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Comenius, Oppenheimer and others. However there are still many old-fashioned museums which seem to give no though for the needs of educational exhibits. Those problematic issues on museum education will be discussed in near future on this site.


Bassett D.A., 1992. Museums and Education: a bibliographic guide, Manual of Curatorship, BH: 623.
Board of Education, 1931. Museums and the Schools: Memorandum on the Possibility of Increased Co-operation Between Public Museums and Public Educational Institutes, Educational Pamphlets, No.87, HMSO, London.
Burcaw G.E., 1990. Introduction to Museum Work, aaslh (The American Association for State and Local History), Nashville: 18.
Butler S., 1992. Science and Technology Museums, Leicester University Press: 19,29-33,45,48,51,85,90-91.
Calkins N.A., 1980. Object Teaching: Its Purpose and Province, Education, Boston, Mass: 165-172.
Caygill M., 1985. The Story of the British Museum, British Museum Press: 3.
Chadwick A.F., 1980. The Role of the Museum and Art Gallery in Community Education, Department of Adult Education, University of Nottingham: 3,7.
Glaser J.R., 1986. USA Museums in Content, The American Museum Experience, HMSO: 7-8.
Hooper-Greenhill E., 1991. Museum and Gallery Education, Leicester University Press: 11,16-17, 29,40.
Hooper-Greenhill E., 1992a. Museum Education, Manual of Curatorship, BH: 671-673.
Hooper-Greenhill E., 1992b. Museums and the Shaping of knowledge, Routledge: 126,128.
Lewis G., 1992a. Museums and Their Precursors: A Brief World Survey, Manual of Curatorship, BH: GLC. 6-10, 15.
Lewis G., 1992b. Museums in Britain: A Historical Survey, Manual of Curatorship, BH: 23,31,33-34,37.
Miles R.S. et al 1988. The Design of Educational Exhibits, UNWIN HYMAN: 3.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications