Types Of Museums
Given their diverse origins, varying philosophies, and differing roles in society, museums do not lend themselves to rigid classification. Certain museums provide for a specialist audience—for example, children, societies, universities, or schools. Some have particular responsibilities for a defined geographic area, such as a city or region. Other museums—especially ones where the primary ethos is nationalistic, religious, or political—may offer unusual perspectives, resulting in alternative interpretations of artistic, historical, or scientific collections.
Sometimes museums are classified according to the source of their funding (e.g., state, municipal, private), particularly in statistical work. Classifying by source of funding, however, fails to indicate the true character of the museums’ collections. For example, institutions funded by the national government—national museums—may hold outstanding international collections, as do the British Museum, the Hermitage, and the Louvre; they may hold specialized collections, as do a number of the national museums of antiquities on the European continent; or these may have an essentially local character, as does the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C.
An analysis of museums based on the nature of their collections, although it fails to indicate disparities of scale and quality, does have the merit of distinguishing between general and specialized museums. In addition, by emphasizing collections, this method focuses on the very raison d’être of museums. In this article, museums are classified into five basic types—general, natural history and natural science, science and technology, history, and art. A more recent kind of museum—the virtual museum—transcends all other types by virtue of its unique electronic presentation and is discussed as well.