Most museums are built around a collection and our journey starts in the 16th century with the so-called ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Comprised of rare and unusual objects, they were collected with the purpose of being preserved and interpreted in order to offer an understanding of the world. Their owners, some of the first systematic collectors, were royalty, noblemen and affluent merchants.
In the 1600s, John Tradescant’s house and garden in south London were filled with more curiosities than someone might see in a lifetime of travel, all thanks to his employers and other connections.
Collections such as these formed the basis for the first public museums in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Britain, the British Museum was formed in 1753 by an act of Parliament, comprising of Sir Hans Sloane’s collection (who had bought the cabinet of the London apothecary James Petiver). However, the French Revolution in 1789 and the emergence of the nation-state in Western Europe had a profound effect, making these aristocratic collections available to the public.
The opening of the palace of Louvre as a public museum in August 1793, with artworks previously owned by the King and the Church, served as a symbol of political success for the new Republic and a physical manifestation of the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité.