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Early Development

Museums only started to develop in the form in which they are currently know them at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, when amateur scientists began to collect the material evidence of what was still widely assumed to be God's creation. By the sixteenth century many European noblemen had "cabinets of curiosities" containing the unaccountable wonders of nature, such as fossil teeth (thought to be satanic) and flint tools (thought to be thunderbolts) and, increasingly, natural and cultural artifacts gleaned from the newly discovered far-flung corners of the world. By the seventeenth century some of these collections had begun to be systematically studied and categorized. Ole Worm (1588–1654), a Danish doctor, used his vast collection to prove that so-called unicorn horns actually came from a species of Arctic whale—much to the chagrin of Scandinavian fishermen, who plied a lucrative trade in supplying such wonders.

The approach of these early scientific collectors was, as it had been in ancient Greece, encyclopedic. The mere activity of collecting similar objects together and placing them in some sort of order—the standard way of working in museums even in the twenty-first century—was then an extremely exciting activity. Barriers of accepted thought were being broken on every front. Geological specimens proved that the earth was far older than anyone had imagined, fossils demonstrated the fact of extinction (thought, by most, to be an impossibility within divine creation), and coins revealed the existence of cultures and dynasties previously unknown to history. Without his vast collection of natural history specimens, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) might never have formulated his theory of evolution. Working in the Museum of Northern Antiquities in Copenhagen, Christian Jurgensen Thomsen (1788–1865) developed the system of classifying prehistory according to the material evidence of the ages of stone, bronze, and iron, the names by which they are still known. It is significant that the formation of the British Museum (and library) was exactly contemporaneous with the publication of Denis Diderot's great Encyclopédie in France.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries public museums burgeoned throughout Europe and America, and soon in other societies influenced by them, such as South America, Australia, India, and South Africa. This was in response to two considerable and growing pressures: the new urge to collect and codify all material things, and the public's desire to see all these wonders. In those days the interests of the scholar and the general public were consanguineous. Crowds gathered to see the first stuffed kangaroo or dinosaur bone or the latest archaeological discovery from Peru. The field of enquiry that was opening was so vast that collectors—and therefore museums—soon began to specialize, dividing into subject areas such as natural history and geology, archaeology, and ethnology, which continue to define their form to this day.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Museums - Origins, Early Development, Growth, Agencies Of Influence, Future Challenges, Bibliography