Louvre to Prado: Six of the world’s oldest museums that still exist today

For International Museum Day, we highlight the globe’s longest-established exhibitions

Clockwise from top left: The British Museum in London, Louvre Museum in Paris, Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Capitoline Museums in Rome, Prado Museum in Madrid, Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. AFP, Getty Images
Clockwise from top left: The British Museum in London, Louvre Museum in Paris, Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Capitoline Museums in Rome, Prado Museum in Madrid, Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. AFP, Getty Images

Today marks International Museum Day, which was established by the International Council of Museums in 1977 as a way to engage its members – which now total 37,000 – in events and discussions around museology and the role of museums in the world.

It’s hard to put an exact number on how many museums exist globally – organisations and researchers have proposed estimates of at least 55,000 in more than 200 countries.

Even in antiquity there is evidence of people collecting and preserving objects. But our modern definition of a museum has its roots in 17th to 18th-century Europe, where collections were placed on display in public squares and churches. This practice grew alongside expanding empires that extracted objects from their colonies, as well as the arrival of the Enlightenment.

Tracing the histories of six of the world’s oldest museums reveals how these institutions and collections were built, and the ever-changing nature of these spaces today.

Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, southern central England, on April 24, 2020. AFP
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. AFP

The foundations of this institution go back to Elias Ashmole, an English politician and lawyer who gave his collection of artefacts and other oddities to the University of Oxford, which constructed a building to house the objects. It opened to the public in 1683.

The museum is still open and running in Oxford, and its collection includes archaeological objects and fine art, such as Greek marbles, majolica pottery, antiquities from ancient Egypt, and artworks by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.

Capitoline Museums

A general view shows Piazza del Campidoglio and the Capitoline Museum (Musei Capitolini) building (Rear C) on Capitoline Hill in Rome as the museum reopens on May 19, 2020. AFP
Piazza del Campidoglio and the Capitoline Museum on Capitoline Hill in Rome. AFP

It has been referred to as the oldest museum in the world – the Musei Capitolini in Rome was created in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of bronzes to the city.

The museum’s collection soon grew to include Roman inscriptions, Medieval and Renaissance art, coins and jewels, and it eventually opened to the public in 1734.

Currently run by the municipality of Rome, the museum includes three main palazzos, as well as an open plaza. Among its most famous objects is the Capitoline Wolf, which tells the mythical story about the founding of Rome.

The British Museum

Exterior view of the British Museum in central London. Getty Images
Exterior view of The British Museum in central London. Getty Images

With its permanent collection of at least eight million works, The British Museum in London reflects the reach and power of the British Empire, but its history has also brought in controversy and debate about the restitution and repatriation of artefacts.

Established in 1753 by an Act of Parliament during the reign of King George II, it is considered the world’s first public national museum and it began welcoming visitors in 1759.

Among the highlights of its collection are the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles from Greece that date back to about 447 to 4398 BC, as well as Egypt’s Rosetta Stone. It possesses more than 100,000 Egyptian antiquities, and objects from the Classical world and the Middle East.

Louvre Museum

An exterior view of the Musee du Louvre at its closing time and the Pyramide du Louvre, designed by Ieoh Ming Pei, in October 2020 in Paris, France. AFP
An exterior view of the Musee du Louvre and the Pyramide du Louvre, designed by Ieoh Ming Pei. AFP

The most-visited museum in the world, the Louvre in Paris opened in 1793. Today, it contains more than 380,000 objects and 35,000 artworks, including Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

From about the 16th century, the building was used as a palace for the French monarchy before Louis XIV left it for the Palace of Versailles in 1682 with the royal collection kept inside.

Over the next century, art academies thrived in the Louvre until the National Assembly, born out of the French Revolution, ordered the building to be turned into a museum, housing objects from Napoleon’s reign and the royal collections.

Prado Museum

The Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain in January 2021. AFP
The Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain. AFP

The Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid contains objects from the Spanish Royal Collection and houses an impressive range of the country’s art.

The building was designed in 1785 and was eventually assigned by a member of the Spanish monarchy as a venue to keep its collection of paintings and sculptures, but also to bolster the image of the Spanish Crown.

In 1819, the museum opened to the public for the first time and it currently has more than 7,000 paintings in its collection. Among its most notable works is Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas, which depicts Margaret Theresa of Spain as a child surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. The painting is prized for its unique composition, with Velazquez playing with perspective and focal points, showing subjects who seemingly look out to the viewer.

The museum’s collection also includes masterpieces by Francisco Goya, Hieronymus Bosch and Titian.

Hermitage Museum

People walk outside the Hermitage museum on June 10, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. AFP
People walk outside the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. AFP

The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, came to be through the efforts of Empress Catherine the Great. A strong supporter of the arts and education, she prompted the construction of the museum with the intent of housing and showcasing her collection of various items, which included paintings, books and sculpture.

The museum was founded in 1764 and it opened to the public in 1852, housing a large number of items – close to three million – from prehistoric art and antiquities to jewellery and European art, as well as a collection of Central Asian art.

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Updated: May 18, 2021 09:57 AM

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