Do you know that Research was always the core function of Ancient Museums?


When we talk about any museum, the first thing that comes to our mind is something that is, perhaps, old, past, historical, etc. But besides this, there are a few other prime things to which we won’t relate, and even can’t imagine that something important and meaningful like “research” and “education” can be associated with museums either.

Museums’ jobs are to look after the world’s cultural property and interpret it for the public. For your kind of information, I would like to tell you that this can’t be your ordinary property. Actually, it should have a special status in international legislation and there are usually national laws to protect these valuable and irreplaceable properties. It includes the world’s natural and cultural heritage and may be of a tangible and intangible character. It is necessary to emphasize that cultural property often provides primary evidence in a number of subject disciplines, such as archaeology and the natural sciences, and therefore represents an important contribution to knowledge.

As society becomes ever more complex and schools become ever more institutionalized, the educational experience becomes less directly related to daily life, less a matter of showing and learning in the context of the workaday world and more abstracted from practice, more a matter of distilling, telling, and learning things out of context. This concentration of learning in a formal atmosphere allows children to learn far more about their culture than they are able to do by merely observing and imitating. As society gradually gravitates more towards giving importance to education, it also tries to formulate the overall objectives, content, organization, and strategies of education.

The concept of research and learning has somehow been driven by museums, predominantly since ancient times. Today’s schools are known to be formal, whereas museums are non-formal, but if we dig into the history of these two words, a very interesting fact comes to light. The word  ‘School’ was drawn from the Greek word “Skholē”, which means ‘leisure’ (spare time, rest, ease), and the word ‘Museum’ was taken from the Latin word ‘Mūsēum’, which means ‘library’ (study) and from the Ancient Greek word “Μουσεῖον/ Mouseîon” which means ‘Shrine of Muses’. The very interesting and radical changes can be seen in both. The School has changed to a proper curriculum-based education place and Museums are completely neglected and just imagined as for people’s entertainment. Though in reality, it is not, it is much more than what we perceive about museums, but unfortunately, there is a huge miscomprehension about such places in today’s time.

Historical Background of Research and Collection

The development of Alexandrian Museum was the first ancient center of classical learning at Alexandria in Egypt. The Alexandrian Museum was a research institute that was especially noted for its scientific and literary scholarship. It was built near the royal palace in the 3rd century BCE, possibly by Ptolemy I Soter. Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, described the museum as a large complex of buildings and gardens with richly decorated lecture and banquet halls linked by porticos, or colonnaded walks. It was organized into faculties, with a president-priest at the head. In fact, all the scholars were paid for doing their research work by the Egyptian king and later by the Roman emperor. The renowned Library of Alexandria formed a part of the museum. In 272 CE, the buildings of the museum were destroyed in the civil war under the Roman emperor Aurelian, although the educational and research functions of the institution seem to have continued until the 5th century.

A collection of objects brought together due to personal or collective associations in distant antiquity. Grave goods found with Paleolithic burials provide evidence of this. However, the development of the museum idea occurred early in the 2nd Millennium BCE at Larsa in Mesopotamia for the purpose of educational use. The first museum that can be traced back is Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum, from 530 BC, located in the state of Ur. He is known as the first archeologist, and he gave Princess Ennigaldi the idea of making a museum. Archeological evidence suggests that not only were the kings Nebuchadrezzar and Nabonidus collecting antiquities at this time, but also, at about the same time, there was a collection of antiquities in a room next to the temple school, which was associated with a tablet describing an earlier brick inscription found locally. It is said that the concept of “museum label” was seen for the first time in history.

Development of Research in a Museal Context

Before 2007, ICOM presented research as the driving force behind its functioning, the objective of the museum being to carry out research on the material evidence of man and society. That is why the museum “acquires, conserves, and exhibits” this evidence. This formal definition focused on the museum as a kind of laboratory, which was supposed to be open to the public, no longer represents museal reality today since a large part of the research was carried out in the last third of the 20th century and has been moved from museums to laboratories and universities.

In 2007, a new definition was approved by ICOM. The functions and roles of museums change and remain for quite a long time till August 23rd, 2022. Since then, the museum’s functions have focused on “acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits” the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity. The definition was shorter than the previous one, and the term “does research” in the previous definition of the museum was replaced by the term “study”. The research was one of the three activities of the ‘PRC Model’ (Preservation-Research-Communication) proposed by the Reinwardt Academie (Mensch, 1992) to define the functions of museums. It seems to be a fundamental element for thinkers as different as Zbyne k Stransky, Georges Henri Riviere, and many other museologists from Central and Eastern Europe.

The ICOM Extraordinary General Assembly approved a new museum definition on August 24th, 2022, in the framework of the 26th ICOM General Conference held in Prague.

“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that “researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits” tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing. ”

In the definition, one can clearly see the function of a museum is quite shuffled, such as ‘researches, collects, conserves’. Research is pulled as the prime function of a museum, which has completely diverged for so long.

Research in Museal Institutions

According to Davallon in 1995, research within the framework of the museum can be classified into four categories.

  • The first type of research, certainly the most developed, is direct evidence of traditional museal activity and is based on the museum’s collections, relying essentially on the reference disciplines connected with the content of the collections (history of art, history, natural sciences, etc.). The creation of classification systems, which is inherent in the creation of a collection and produces catalogues, was one of the museum’s top research priorities, particularly in natural science museums (this is the essence of taxonomy), but also in ethnography, archaeology, and fine art museums.


  • The second type of research involves sciences and disciplines which lie outside the realm of museology (physics, chemistry, communication sciences, etc.), pursued in order to develop tools for museum practices such as materials and standards for conservation, study, or restoration, surveys of the public, management methods, etc.


  • The aim of the third type of research, which can be called museological, such as ‘Museal ethics’, is to stimulate thought about the mission and operations of museums. The disciplines involved are essentially based on philosophy, history, and even museology itself.


  • Finally, the fourth type of research, which can also be seen as ‘Museal critics’, addresses the analysis of the institution, in particular through its communication and heritage aspects.


Dr. Fatma Faheem, Researcher, Conservator, and Author, Aligarh Muslim University


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