How does stuff end up in a museum?

Image showing interior of Pitt Rivers museum, filled with display cabinets

Pitt Rivers Museum

© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

    • As you walk around a museum have you ever taken a second to wonder how did all this stuff end up here?

      Collectors collecting

      With many museums, a lot of the things are there because someone liked collecting things. People like Sir John Soane had collected so many objects that their collection was turned into a museum when they died. You can discover what happened with Sir John’s collection at the Sir John Soane’s Museum’s website.

      Sometimes these collections were called Cabinets of Curiosities. You could put anything in your Cabinet of Curiosity, from stuffed animals to skeletons to shells  and anything else you can imagine. You can find out about Frederick Ruysch’s Cabinet of Curiosity over at the British Library.

      The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford began when Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (phew!) gave around 20,000 objects to the University of Oxford in 1884. He collected lots of different things - weapons, musical instruments, masks, textiles, jewellery, tools and more - and many of them are on view. As you can see in the picture below this means the display cases are very crowded.

      Image showing crowded displays of objects on puberty and marriage from around the worldDisplay case from the Pitt Rivers Museum© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
      Collecting new items is a big part of what museums do (check out our ‘What is a Museum?’ article to find out why) but some museums have something called a ‘Closed Collection’ which means that nothing can be added or taken away. The Wallace Collection has a Closed Collection which makes it a curious time capsule full of 18th century paintings.

      Sometimes, items would have been donated to a museum by someone who thinks their gift is important enough to be in a museum. When this happens, the people in charge at the museum have to decide whether they want it or not.

      Every once in a while, a real gem of an object turns up, like this Babylonian tablet that was given to the British Museum.


      Many objects ended up in museums because a country was conquered and colonised. The British did a lot of this when we were building the Empire, as did other countries. The new settlers would take things they thought were interesting back to their home country. One example of this is the Benin Bronzes from what is now Nigeria.

      Two hundred of these bronze pieces are in the British Museum. There are more scattered across museums up and down the country, including the Horniman Museum, Bristol Museum and several others besides. In total there are about 900 of these plaques and some of them are back in Africa; some people say they should all be returned to Africa. This is called repatriation.

      Spoils of War
      You might have heard the term ‘spoils of war’, when victors take treasures because they have won.

      Sometimes these spoils of war find their way into museums. One famous example is the Rosetta Stone, which the British took from Egypt in 1801 after warring with Napoleon.

      Napoleon’s soldiers found the remarkable rock when they were digging the foundations for a fort near the town of el-Raschid in 1799. British and French scholars were able to put their differences aside and work together on translating the markings on the stone which revolutionised our understanding of Ancient Egypt.

      But what about natural history museums?
      So far, we've only looked at how things have found their way into museums that deal with art or history. Here's a video from The Field Museum in Chicago and their Chief Curiosity Correspondent, explaining how museums find natural history specimens.

      Things change
      Today, things are very different. Before a museum obtains a new object, they have to make sure they know where it has come from. This is called an object’s provenance. If they don’t know where the object is from and how it got from there to here, then they can’t accept it.
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