The Museum: From its Origins to the 21st Century by Owen Hopkins

Frances Lincoln

Review by David Starkey

In The Museum: From its Origins to the 21st Century, Owen Hopkins, Director of the Farrell Centre at Newcastle University, focuses on three key characteristics of museums: their collections, the collection’s accessibility to the public, and the container for the collection. As its subtitle suggests, after its introduction, The Museum progresses chronologically, beginning with the Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosity, of the seventeenth-century. These collections were eclectic and often joyfully disorganized, with their owners proud of the sheer variety of things, often taken from the natural world, which they had managed to assemble. Hopkins describes an engraving of one of the first Wunderkammer, curated by the Danish physician Ole Worm, as follows:

In it we see a veritable menagerie of different animals: tortoise shells, reptiles and lizards of all types, birds, fish, even a bear hang from the ceiling. Lower down we see a range of smaller objects and specimens: various metals, roots and fungi, both from Europe and the New World of North and South America. At the end of the room, we see something perhaps stranger still: a miniature figurine, the presence of which signals the numerous man-made artefacts or artificialia that are also contained in the room, many of which are equally “exotic” in origin.

Hopkins points out that these early collectors “were generally most interested in objects that provoked wonder in those who saw them,” and museums, obviously continue to display things that evoke awe in their beholders. Gradually, however, collections began to be organized in ways that demonstrated their relation to one another, and which served the purpose of educating those who came to study them. Here, Hopkins shifts his focus to the collection Elias Ashmole donated to Oxford University, which became the Ashmolean Museum. For the first time, not only was an extensive collection of objects accessible to the public, it was also housed in an edifice befitting the collection’s importance.

The second chapter focuses on “The Enlightenment Museum,” with the British Museum and the Louvre taking centerstage, and the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, the Prado in Madrid, and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg playing supporting roles. Grandeur is paired with serious scholarship, not to mention national pride in the prestige of the collections. These museums stood, and continue to stand, as symbols of power and “cultural pre-eminence.”

“The Public Museum” focuses on the Frick, the Smithsonian museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While he is generally laudatory when discussing these institutions, Hopkins does not shy away from the dark side behind the great wealth required to assemble world-class works of art. Henry Frick, for instance, was “severely tainted by his personal involvement” in the Homestead Massacre, in which the Pennsylvania state militia shot seven striking steel workers. Nevertheless, “Frick has not gone down in history as a villain, a reputation he quite possibly deserves,” Hopkins notes. “Instead, we remember him as a collector of extraordinary works of art and the founder of one of New York’s Great Museums.”

The next two chapters, “The Modern Museum” and “The Global Museum” look increasingly at the buildings which house the museums’ collections. This makes sense inasmuch as Hopkins is an architectural historian; however, discussions of the collections—inevitably, Hopkins might argue—take second seat to descriptions of the buildings’ often spectacular exteriors. Looking at the full-color pictures of the Centre Pompidou, the new Whitney, Berlin’s Jewish Museum, the Tadao Ando-designed Fort Worth Modern Art Museum, the National Museum of Qatar, and the China Qujing History Museum, one can hardly blame Hopkins for his enthusiasm.

The book concludes with a chapter on “The Museum Now,” which explores current issues such as the repatriation of stolen and looted objects, the attempt to bring non-traditional patrons into museums, digital collections, and the fallacy of neutral curation. It’s a lot to cover in a relatively short amount of text, but Hopkins writes well, and The Museum ends by focusing not on the collections or their containers, which have filled up so many of this big, beautiful book’s thick glossy pages, but on people: “it is not the object that sits at the centre of the three defining characteristics of the museum, but the visitor, their experience, reaction and response in the here and now.”