Early museums began as the private collections of wealthy individuals, families or institutions of art and rare or curious natural objects and artifacts. Word “museum” comes from ancient Greek “mouseion” which meant “seat of Muses” and it was used for philosophical institution or for a place for contemplation. In Rome, Latin word “museum” was used for places for philosophical discussions. The purpose of modern museums is to collect, preserve, interpret, and display objects of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for the education of the public. This is often accomplished through temporary or permanent exhibits.
Many public museums make their items available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. The largest museums are in major cities throughout the world, while thousands of local museums exist in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Museums have varying aims, ranging from serving researchers and specialists to educating the public, and frequently have guides and educators, who usually serve on a voluntary basis to lead tours. These individuals are known as “docents,” a word derived from the Latin word docēns, the present active participle of docēre (to teach, to lecture).
The Smithsonian Institution (above) was established with the legacy bequeathed by James Smithson and is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, with 19 museums and the National Zoological Park. “The Castle,” the institutions first building (1847) remains its headquarters.