More than 850 million people will visit an American museum this year. That’s more than the combined attendance of every baseball, basketball, football and hockey game combined. Museums fill a unique niche by combining education and entertainment unlike any other place of gathering. First built as temples to the “muses” of Greek mythology, the original museums were filled with sculptures and scholars. In subsequent centuries, European monarchs seeking to display their spoils of war mimicked the Greek museums, creating great houses of treasure.
When the tradition came to the U.S., the motivation shifted from aggrandizement to education. The first museum to open in the United States was Charles Willson Peale's Cabinet of Curiosities in Philadelphia, established in 1786. Peale wished to document the history of European discovery in the New World, displaying portraits of George Washington alongside the bones of wooly mammoths.
These days, there are over 17,000 museums in the United States. Some are small, hyper-focused collections of curiosities — like the Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho, or the Hand Fan Museum in Healdsburg, California — while others celebrate a wide array of art and scholarly achievement, paying homage to the intentions of the Greeks and their muses.
To share in the celebration of art and history, we’ve collected the following 18 quotes about museums, each with its own unique take on the value of curated collections.
A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives.Maira Kalman, illustrator
Museums, like theaters and libraries, are a means to freedom.Wendy Beckett, art historian
The only way to understand painting is to go and look at it. And if out of a million visitors, there is even one to whom art means something, that is enough to justify museums.Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Art has always had as its test in the long term the ability to speak to our innermost selves. People have experiences in art museums today that they used to have in the church.Bill Viola, video artist
We used to build temples, and museums are about as close as secular society dares to go in facing up to the idea that a good building can change your life.Alain de Botton, philosopher
I go to a museum and see a painting someone living in the past has made, and I’m completely blown away. The nature of human beings has not changed. Everyone wants to avoid suffering and look for love.Dana Levin, poet
Give me a museum, and I’ll fill it.Pablo Picasso
Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering — because you can’t take it in all at once.Audrey Hepburn
Don’t go to a museum with a destination. Museums are wormholes to other worlds. They are ecstasy machines. Follow your eyes to wherever they lead you… and the world should begin to change for you.Jerry Saltz, art critic
That’s why we have the Museum, Matty, to remind us of how we came, and why: to start fresh, and begin a new place from what we had learned and carried from the old.Lois Lowry, children’s author
My mother took me to the British Museum aged five. I had thought people from the past weren't as good as we were, and then I saw the Elgin marbles. Suddenly, the world seemed more complicated.Mary Beard, historian and professor
A museum is a spiritual place. People lower their voices when they get close to art.Mario Botta, architect
A living museum must surely see itself as a locus of argument. A breathing art institution is not a lockup but a moveable feast.Andrew O’Hagan, novelist
Shouldn't a great museum foster serious seeing before all else?Mark Stevens, actor
My mother's a genius… We would go to the art museum pretty much every Sunday, and I would watch her. She let me know that art was supposed to touch.Jill Scott
Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.Orhan Pamuk, novelist
Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there was a fire? The one nearest the door of course.George Bernard Shaw
The world is a museum and we are the artist and critics.J.R. Incer, life coach
Photo credit: Daniel Robert/ Unsplash