Defining Modern Museums: A Blend of Seasoned and Fresh Ideas

Self-portrait by Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822, is displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Defining Modern Museums: A Blend of Seasoned and Fresh Ideas

The vision and purpose of museums in society have changed a great deal over the years. Once positioned on the perimeters of society and intended only for the wealthy and elite, museums have evolved into community centers that strive to serve a broad and diverse public.

During the mid-1780s, Charles Willson Peale, an American painter, scientist, and collector, established one of the nation's first museums in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Peale wanted to document the history of discovery in the post-Revolutionary War world and hoped to educate the public using his "cabinet of curiosities," a unique combination of his own paintings (including portraits of George Washington), stuffed animals, and other natural specimens. Peale's museum represented a profound break with the past and with other museums in Europe, which restricted entry to scholars, aristocrats, and government officials. Peale envisioned his museum as an educational institution for all.

With the popularity of Peale's "cabinet of curiosities," other museums began to emerge. P.T. Barnum's American Museum opened in 1841 and piqued interest by publicizing and hyping its bizarre and exotic spectacles. These spectacles often took the form of exhibiting people with physical abnormalities in attempts to shock and awe the public.

Around the same time, another museum philosophy was in the works. Established with funds bequeathed by British scientist, James Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution was built to be "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Today, most museums exist and function as a medley of these different concepts. The modern museum seeks to engage the public in ways that are, first and foremost, meant to serve the public, primarily educationally. This can be done in countless ways, given the possibilities of modern technology and creative programming.

Once built, the National Law Enforcement Museum will stand as a representation of all that the modern museum has to offer. With traditional programs like "Witness to History" that facilitate discussion of historic events with those who lived them, as well as exhibitions that will employ cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art audio/visual programs, the Museum will work to challenge visitors' assumptions while engaging them in a dialogue of mutual respect. The core exhibitions will provide a dynamic learning experience, while the Museum will also serve as a public forum for discussions, lectures and conferences; provide educational programs for students, families and the general public; and offer in-depth research opportunities in the areas of law enforcement history and safety.

Understanding the way that museums have influenced and been influenced by society in the past provides the National Law Enforcement Museum with the appropriate context in which to define and position itself to exceed the expectations of an ever-changing, contemporary public.


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