Where does the word “museum” come from and How did the museum get its name?

Today it seems rather far-fetched to associate the word “museum” with the nine Muses of ancient Greece, for we do not usually think of these beautiful nymphs in connection with collections of paintings, furniture, insects, curios, or the like.

Nor do we connect the term with any one of them, nor with the art over which each presided, Clio, history; Calliope, epic poetry; Polyhymnia, sacred music; Euterpe, the music of the flute; Terpsichore, the dance; Erato, love poetry; Melpomene, tragedy; Thalia, comedy; Urania, astronomy.

But shrines to the Muses were common among the cities influenced by Hellenic culture. Such a shrine was known as a mouseion, or, in Latin, a museum.

Hence about 285 B.C., when Ptolemy Soter erected his widely famed temple of learning at Alexandria, which was dedicated to the Muses, it became properly known as the Museum at Alexandria. Under that name it flourished for about seven hundred years and was the forerunner of our present universities.

When it was destroyed by fire in the fourth century, however, the name became merely a memory and the word dropped almost completely out of use.

Then about three hundred years ago some scholar dug the word out of the dusty past and thought that museum would apply to any room or building which provided a “home for the Muses,” such as the library or study of a learned man.

From this careless use, museum came to be thought of as a home for anything pertaining to learning; hence, to collections of scientific curios or of antiquities. The first of these latter museums was the Ashmolean Museum, a collection of scientific material presented by Elias Ashmole to Oxford University in 1683.

It is thus seen that the Aluses do preside over our modern museums.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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