...The public museum as understood today, is a collection of specimens and other objects of interest to the scholar, the man of science as well as the more casual visitor, arranged and displayed in accordance with the scientific method. In its original sense, the term "museum" meant a spot dedicated to the muses - "a place where man's mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs." By far the most important museum of antiquity was the great institution at Alexandria founded by Ptolemy Philadelphus in the third century before Christ, (an endeavor supported by a grant from the treasury). And no treatment of the museum would be complete without mention of Noah's Ark in which we find the most complete Museum of Natural History the world has ever seen.
The museum fell into dark oblivion, as did all institutions of learning, with the coming of the Middle Ages. However, during these dark times, the churches and monasteries, through collections of curiosities, allowed the spirit of the museum to burn through the ages as the famed Hetruscan sepulchral lamps burned through the ages without benefit of air or fuel in the dark of the tomb.
Relics and curiosities could be found in nearly every parish church no matter how small. In the ninth century, a hair from the beard of Noah was shown at the Abbey of Corbie. In the choir of the church of Ensisheim in upper Alsace, there is a portion of a meteorite which fell to earth in 1492; and there were antediluvian bones in the church of St Kilian at Heilbronn, in Wurtenberg. "In some churches, two eggs of ostriches and other things of the like kind, which cause admiration and which are rarely seen, are accustomed to be suspended, that by their means the people may be drawn and have their minds the more affected."
However, the true origins of today's public museum of natural history can be traced only as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This period witnessed the spread of humanism - an era in which the objects of animated nature and the phenomena of the material world began to be regarded with scientific interest. Collections of natural objects became as common as collections of works of art and often both such collections were housed in one repository. One of the earliest printed catalogues of a collection is that "of all the chiefest Rarities in the Publick Theater and Anatomie-Hall of the University of Leyden" which appears to have been published in 1591, but the date seems to be a mistake for 1691.
The early collections were primarily in the hands of wealthy individuals. And, according to Wittlin, these collections could be divided into four groups: (1) economic hoard collections, (2) social prestige collections, (3) collections as an expression of group loyalty, and (4) collections as means of emotional experience. Among the most celebrated of these collections in Europe was that of Jon James Swammerdam who boasted a talisman of lead covered with Arabic letters which was used an amulet by being placed in burning soda thus affording the possessor freedom from all Danger of being assaulted by evil Manes of Spirits, which they believe are continually hovering about the world watching Occasions to injure mankind.
At the same time in England, a number of illustrious collections were being formed. Many of these collections are well known and need only to be mentioned here. Among these were the collection of Ole Worm, whose Museum Wormianum achieved great fame. Another collection of rarities was preserved at South Lambeth by Elias Ashmole. Mr Ashmole, a botanist, presented his collection to his friend and neighbor Samuel Dule (author of the Pharmacologia) to whom it was delivered one week before Mr. Dule's death.
Through the second half of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century it became fashionable to donate these collections to budding public institutions. The first of these "public" museums were little more than formalized displays of private collections of rarities and curios, often with little regard for any meaningful order of display. These institutions, though public in name, were accessible in fact only to the cognoscenti and then only by appointment, in small groups, and for limited periods of time.
However, at the same time, in the city of Philadelphia in America, Charles Willson Peale was forming a museum that was to become a model for the institution for years to come. Mr. Peale's Museum was open to all people (including children and the fair sex) and was philosophically grounded in the thoughts of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Peale fervently believed that teaching is a sublime ministry inseparable from human happiness, and that the learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar - guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.
"Rational amusement" was the Peale Museum's instrument but also, by curious irony, its eventual undoing. Imitators sprang up almost at once. A collection of oddities, unencumbered by scientific purpose was found to be "good business". Tawdry and specious museums soon appeared in almost every American city and town. This unsavory tendency finally reached its peak with Barnum, who in the end obtained, scattered, and ultimately incinerated, the Peale collections.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology traces its origins to this period when many of the important collections of today were beginning to take form. Many exhibits which we today have come to know as part of the Museum were, in fact, formally part of other less well known collections and were subsequently consolidated into the single collection which we have come to know as The Museum of Jurassic Technology and thus configured, received great public acclaim as well as much discussion in scholastic circles.
The Museum, however, not content to rest on its laurels, kept pace with the changes in sensibility over the years. Except for the periods of the great wars in this century (when twice portions of the collection were nearly lost) the Museum engaged in a program of controlled expansion. Walking through the Museum, the visitor experiences, as it were, a walk back in time. The first exhibits encountered are the contemporary displays and reaching the far end of the Museum, the visitor is surrounded by the earliest exhibits.
Although the path has not always been smooth, over the years The Museum of Jurassic Technology has adapted and evolved until today it stands in a unique position among the institutions in the country. Still even today, the Museum preserves something of the flavor of its roots in the early days of the natural history museum - a flavor which has been described as "incongruity born of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena."
"Glory to Him, who endureth forever, and in whose hands are the keys of unlimited Pardon and unending Punishment."
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