How is the meaning of our word museum related to the muses?

The word museum is derived from the ancient Greek word mouseion, which means a place or temple dedicated to the muses. The muses were the goddesses of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology. They inspired poets, musicians, and scholars with their divine gifts. In this article, we will explore how the meaning of our word museum is related to the muses, and how the concept of a museum evolved over time.

The origin of the word museum

According to etymonline, the word museum first appeared in English in the 1610s, meaning “the university building in Alexandria”. This was a reference to the famous Musaeum of Alexandria, which was founded by Ptolemy I Soter in the 3rd century BC. The Musaeum was not only a library, but also a research center and a school of philosophy and science. It attracted scholars from all over the ancient world, who studied various subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, geography, and literature. The Musaeum was also a shrine of the muses, where their statues and altars were displayed.

The Musaeum of Alexandria was one of the earliest examples of a museum in the modern sense of the word: a public institution that collects, preserves, and displays objects of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance. However, it was not the only one. In ancient Greece and Rome, there were other places where people could admire artworks, relics, and curiosities. For example, there were temples dedicated to specific gods or goddesses, where votive offerings and statues were displayed. There were also private collections of wealthy individuals or rulers, who amassed rare and exotic items from different lands. Some of these collections were open to the public, while others were reserved for select guests.

The evolution of the word museum

The word museum continued to be used in Latin and Greek throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, its meaning changed over time. In medieval Europe, a museum was often a place where relics of saints and martyrs were kept and venerated. These relics were believed to have miraculous powers and were displayed in churches or monasteries. In the Renaissance, a museum was more like a cabinet of curiosities: a collection of natural specimens, antiquities, artworks, and oddities that reflected the interests and tastes of their owners. These collections were often private and personal, rather than public and educational.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the word museum began to acquire its modern meaning: a public institution that exhibits objects for the study and education of the public. This was influenced by several factors: the rise of scientific inquiry and exploration; the development of national identity and pride; the growth of public education and literacy; and the emergence of new forms of art and culture. Some of the earliest modern museums were founded by royal or noble patrons, who donated their collections to the state or to specific institutions. For example, in 1683, King Charles II of England gave his collection of natural history specimens to Oxford University, which became the Ashmolean Museum. In 1753, Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection of books, manuscripts, artworks, and natural specimens to the British nation, which formed the basis of the British Museum.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, museums proliferated around the world. They became more specialized and diverse in their themes and functions. They also became more accessible and democratic in their audiences and missions. Museums played an important role in preserving cultural heritage, promoting scientific knowledge, fostering artistic expression, and educating citizens. Some examples of influential museums from this period are: the Louvre Museum in Paris (1793), which was originally a royal palace; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC (1846), which was established by an act of Congress; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1870), which was founded by a group of American businessmen; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1929), which was dedicated to contemporary art.

The connection between museums and muses

The word museum has come a long way from its ancient Greek origin. It has changed its meaning and function over time. However, it still retains some connection to its original source: the muses. Museums are still places where people can encounter inspiration, creativity, and wonder. Museums are still places where people can learn from different cultures, disciplines, and perspectives. Museums are still places where people can celebrate human achievements and aspirations.

The muses may not be worshipped as goddesses anymore, but they are still revered as symbols of artistic excellence and intellectual curiosity. Many museums have adopted one or more muses as their patrons or mascots. For example, Clio (the muse of history) is often associated with historical museums; Urania (the muse of astronomy) is often associated with science museums; and Calliope (the muse of epic poetry) is often associated with literary museums. Some museums have even named themselves after the muses, such as the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which has a statue of Thalia (the muse of comedy) on its facade.

The word museum is not only a noun, but also an adjective. We can say that something is museum-worthy, meaning that it is worthy of being displayed in a museum. We can also say that something is museum-like, meaning that it resembles a museum in some way. These expressions show how the word museum has become a standard of quality and a model of presentation. They also show how the word museum has become part of our everyday language and culture.


The word museum is related to the muses in both its origin and its essence. It comes from the ancient Greek word mouseion, which means a place or temple dedicated to the muses. It also reflects the spirit and values of the muses: inspiration, creativity, and wonder. Museums are places where we can encounter the muses in various forms and fields. Museums are places where we can appreciate the beauty and diversity of human expression and experience. Museums are places where we can enrich our minds and souls.

Doms Desk

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