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It is often assumed that museums have been a permanent feature of society, simply because they contain some of the oldest things in the world. In fact, in their current form, museums are surprisingly recent in origin, almost entirely Western in conception, internally confused about their identity, and unsure of their future role.

Museums in the early twenty-first century claim descent from the Museum in Alexandria established in the third century B.C.E., but this is only partly true. That museum—a Latin word derived from the Greek mouseion, meaning seat of the muses—was an attempt to bring all the fields of human knowledge together into one place. Its library was its most famous feature, complemented with a collection of artifacts. Contemporary accounts describe a huge complex of buildings, including seminar rooms and banqueting halls. It was more like a prototype university than a museum.

The British Museum, effectively the mother of all modern museums, was established in 1753 as a direct emulation of the museum in Alexandria, but this time as a public service, not as an educational institution open only to scholars. Its ambition also was to bring all human knowledge together into one place. Its library, again, was by far its most important feature. The idea that artifacts could be separated from books in the learning process did not emerge until well more than a century later, and then largely for reasons of administrative convenience. It was not until 1998 that the British Library was separated physically from the British Museum, which in the early 2000s is a totally different institution from the one that opened its doors 250 years ago, and yet it still proudly claims that its collection has remained "inviolable" since then. It is in this way that museums create myths about their permanence, though their role has in fact changed out of all recognition over the centuries.

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