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The main impetus behind the extraordinary growth in museums during the last two centuries—few cities around the world are now without several—has been the growing awareness of the importance of public education. The roots of this egalitarian ideal also can be traced back to the Enlightenment, when people such as Diderot believed that knowledge would enable humankind to make the world a better place. His ideas for a national museum were put into practice by the leaders of the French Revolution: in 1792, just nine days after the Bourbon monarchy collapsed, the Louvre, at that time a royal palace, was transformed into a museum with the aim of embracing "knowledge in all its manifold beauty" so that it would, "by embodying these good ideas, worthy of a free people … become among the most powerful illustrations of the French Republic." Napoléon Bonaparte was following a time-honored tradition when his armies plundered masterpieces of art from the territories they conquered, particularly in Egypt and Italy, and sent them to the Louvre. (Napoléon was, in this case—at least ostensibly—acting solely in the interests of the people. The Italian treasures were returned after his fall from power.)

Individuals and institutions have, since the earliest times and in almost all cultures, collected rare and precious objects as manifestations of their status. There is archaeological evidence of royal and religious treasuries from ancient civilizations as widespread as Peru, Assyria, Greece, and China. What was new, however, during the Enlightenment, was the idea that these should become public treasuries. The members of the aristocracy of Europe were beginning to allow the general public to visit their collections in the eighteenth century; revolutions merely speeded up the process. The English Civil War, however, had come a century before such ideas had taken hold, and Charles I's extraordinary art collection was simply sold—Britain had to create its own National Gallery, from scratch, in 1824. The Hermitage, though still a royal palace, was first opened to the public in 1852, many decades before the Russian Revolution; its collections had been formed as part of Catherine II the Great's (ruled 1762–1796) strategy to bring education to Russia. The Bolsheviks boosted public collections by giving them religious treasures after religious worship had been outlawed. Many icons are now being returned as the churches reopen following the collapse of the communist regime.

Increasing access to culture dovetailed neatly with the Enlightenment's drive for knowledge. This was the great age of the formation of museums. Its high point, arguably, came in 1846 when James Smithson, a self-effacing English businessman, gave the American government the then celestial sum of half a million dollars to found a museum for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The Smithsonian Institution is now the greatest museum organization in the world, with its many galleries, most of which are ranged along the Mall in Washington, D.C., devoted to interests ranging from art to aerospace and from natural history to ethnography.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the establishment of a museum became not just a response to educational need, but a matter of civic pride. This heady mix of political objectives accounts for the worldwide proliferation of museums at that time, from the Australian Museum in Sydney (opened 1828) to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (1858) to the Museum of the History of China in Beijing (1915), and hundreds of thousands of smaller museums in towns and villages in between.

Museums had another advantage: they attracted tourists. Just as the churches of medieval Europe had competed with each other for relics, so museums sought out the best collections—for tourists, like pilgrims, bring income. Many museums in the late twentieth century were established as part of an economic strategy. Glasgow in Scotland was the first postindustrial city to rebuild itself on the back of an art gallery, the Burrell Collection, which opened in 1983. Gradually museum buildings, such as cathedrals, became beacons of attraction in themselves, which led to the extraordinary flowering of museum architecture in the late twentieth century. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank O. Gehry and opened in 1997, is world-famous for its titanium-clad curves, though few could describe its collection—but then it is not really a museum so much as a temporary exhibition hall, exhibiting works on loan from its parent museum in New York.

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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