In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section University Museums

  • Introduction
  • University and Museum, Organizational Verisimilitude
  • Governance
  • Purpose
  • The Crisis of the Late 20th Century
  • National Perspectives
  • Functional Perspectives 2: Research

Anthropology University Museums
Andrew Simpson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0295


There has long been a close relationship between the process of collection building and their use in the generation and transmission of knowledge. However, it has only been in recent decades that university museums have been considered an identifiable field of inquiry, mainly as a specialism of museology that results from the close alignment of material collections in the higher education academy. Much of the writing about the history of museology has either played down or overlooked the relationship with organizational structures dedicated to higher learning. The archetype of what is widely considered to be the modern university museum is the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University. The development of the modern museum and the modern university stem from the 17th century when the religious focus of culture and intellectual life of the Middle Ages was supplanted by a wave of curiosity and experimentation that fractured the old knowledge systems of natural philosophy into a range of distinctive new scientific disciplines. Associated with this timing was the expansion of European empires and collecting natural and cultural objects, including human remains, from the New World on a massive scale and bringing them back to the center of empires for the new knowledge-building academic enterprises. This accumulation of materiality served a new era of knowledge generation based on classification in firstly Linnaean, then Darwinian, traditions. The same classificatory approach was replicated in cultural investigations of different peoples that established frameworks for knowledge systems in humanistic disciplines as well as scientific ones. Much of the early writing about university museums has captured disciplinary histories rather than articulated a theoretical basis for the close alignment between knowledge and materiality. Part of the reason for this is that the museum and the university, at least in their modern and most familiar form, have been considered two completely different types of organization.

University and Museum, Organizational Verisimilitude

The modern university can be considered as prioritizing the generation of knowledge in comparison with the modern museum that is often seen as prioritizing the transmission of knowledge. However, particularly within the framework of history, both organizational types have embraced both functions. In the university, knowledge generation is a specific function of research and teaching a specific form of knowledge transmission. Material collections can play a role in both, as well as the third function of community engagement, that can be considered a specific form of knowledge transmission. These works capture the similarities and differences in terms of organizational characteristics through historical analysis, comparisons, and etymology. While they originate from differing contexts and therefore articulate different perspectives, they all offer useful insights into these questions. Boylan 1999 notes the threads of materiality through both. Findlen 1989 argues the etymology linking classical and Renaissance forms is appropriate, Odegaard 1963 argues it isn’t. Di Pasquale 2005 argues that the Museion of Alexandria was the “first” university, Erskine 1995 that it was the first university museum. Lieu 2002 outlines the scholarly traditions in Alexandria and Barnes 2002 captures a sense of its similarity with the modern academy. Abt 2011 argues that the Ashmolean was the first public museum as an academy within an academy. Mayer 2005 is a personal account of working in both the modern museum and the academy and a comparison of the two organizational cultures.

  • Abt, Jeffrey. 2011. The origins of the public museum. In A companion to museum studies. Edited by Sharon Macdonald, 115–134. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This is a historical exploration of public and private collecting linking the Museion of Alexandria with the Renaissance. The work unpicks concepts of the Ashmolean as a public-facing museum and notes that evidence of material collections other than text in the classical Alexandrian institution is scant.

  • Barnes, Robert. 2002. Cloistered bookworms in the chicken-coop of the muses: The ancient Library of Alexandria. In The Library of Alexandria: Centre of learning in the ancient world. Edited by Roy MacLeod, 61–78. London: I. B. Tauris.

    Researchers funded by the state in ancient Alexandria sound like a contemporary university department.

  • Boylan, Patrick J. 1999. Universities and museums: Past, present and future. Museum Management and Curatorship 18:43–56.

    DOI: 10.1080/09647779900501801

    Boylan argues that universities are one of the most important collecting institutions because of the close links between knowledge and material collections. Furthermore, many pre-Renaissance academic organizations, such as Aristotle’s Lyceum, must have had collections for teaching purposes. With the modern growth and expansion of universities and museums, the link between the two is likely to persist.

  • Di Pasquale, Giovanni. 2005. The Museum of Alexandria: Myth and model. In From private to public: Natural collections and museums. Edited by Marco Beretta, 1–12. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications.

    This paper argues that the Museion at Alexandria was actually an academy of higher learning.

  • Erskine, Andrew. 1995. Culture and power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria. Greece & Rome 42.1: 38–48.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0017383500025213

    Erskine argues that the Library and Museum museum at Alexandria was essentially the first university museum, even though the academy is not in a familiar form, there was still a community of state-supported scholars. Erskine argues this is the archetypal museum concept rather than university museum concept. However, if the organization was modeled on Aristotle’s Lyceum, it can be conceived as the archetypal university museum.

  • Findlen, Paula. 1989. The museum: Its classical etymology and Renaissance genealogy. Journal of the History of Collections 1:59–78.

    DOI: 10.1093/jhc/1.1.59

    This essay argues that the museum etymology was appropriate for the encyclopedic collecting ambitions of the Renaissance while noting the origin from classical times as related to a community of scholars.

  • Lieu, Samuel N. C. 2002. Scholars and students in the Roman East. In The Library of Alexandria: Centre of learning in the ancient world. Edited by Roy McLeod, 127–142. London: I. B. Tauris.

    This is an outline of the scholarly traditions in these ancient organizations supporting the academic organizational model in antiquity. However, notions of materiality and collections aren’t central in this paper.

  • Mayer, Carol E. 2005. Gladsome moments: From the museum to the academy . . . and back? Museum Management and Curatorship 20.2: 171–181.

    DOI: 10.1080/09647770500702002

    This is an account of personal experiences of working in a museum and in an academic setting noting the culture of organizational differences, but also noting the advantages of working in a place where organizational boundaries between museum and academy can be regularly breached.

  • Odegaard, Charles E. 1963. The university and the museum. Museum News 42.1: 31–34.

    This brief article notes the curious etymology of the term university that ignores the ancient Hellenistic institutions of higher learning.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.