American Museums: A Brief History

The first European museums of art and artifacts were opened in the 17th and 18th centuries. They often grew out of the private collections of wealthy individuals.

The British Museum opened in London in 1759. The Hermitage (1764), in St. Petersburg, and the Louvre (1793), in Paris, were among the first public art museums.

The Wadsworth Atheneum (1842) in Hartford is recognized as the oldest art museum in the United States.

The great era of museum-building in the late 19th century and early 20th century produced most of America's largest and most famous art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (1874), the Art Institute of Chicago (1893), and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1909).

Europe had its first museums of science and natural history in the 1700s. In America, the New England Museum of Natural History opened in Boston in 1864; it became the Museum of Science in 1951.

In New York City, the American Museum of Natural History opened in 1877. In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Natural History opened in 1910. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History opened in 1921.

The Museum of Science and Industry (1933) in Chicago is considered to be America's first interactive science museum. Many others followed, including the Museum of Science and Natural History in St. Louis (now the St. Louis Science Center) in 1959 and the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1969.

Field Museum, Chicago