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Why Do We Need Museums in America?

Cultural institutions are key elements in shaping a nation’s identity as they reflect the politics of the governments and also are a determining aspect of the quality of life of its inhabitants. Recent events renewed the importance of public knowledge and learning but also made evident how fragile the museum sector is. It is therefore imperative to investigate the role of museums or perhaps remind ourselves why we still need them.

The Charleston Museum is commonly regarded as America’s first museum and was founded in 1773 in response to the creation of the British Museum in England. Its prominent collection housed ethnological and zoological specimens and it mirrored Europe’s ‘wunderkammer’ or ‘cabinets of wonders’, private study collections only accessible to the wealthy elite.

Francesco Calzolari’s wunderkammer as presented in a 17th century’s incision of G. Viscardi (Archive of the Museum of Natural History in Verona, Italy)

Museums are no longer conceived as a display of the riches of the world between wealthy merchant and nobles but they aim at educating communities and preserving artifacts from decay and looting. Particularly, the United States has a great history in sponsoring the creation of museums. Joseph Ettle points out that “After World War II there was a huge upswing in the number of museums being opened. The rate of increase from 1940 to 1949 was only one every 10.5 days. The American Association of Museums revealed that between 1960 and 1963 a new museum was established in the United States every 3.3 days. Another such increase occurred during the Bicentennial in 1976.”

It is estimated that the number of museums in the Usa is about 35,000 and all of them play a crucial role in society. Museums are economic engines : they support more than 726,000 American jobs and contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year. Also, the economic activity of museums generates more than $12 billion in tax revenue, one-third of it going to state and local governments. Each job created by the museum sector results in $16,495 in additional tax revenue.

Economic Engines : National Infographic

Interestingly, this is just one side of the multifaceted universe of cultural institutions. In fact, museums offer programs tailored to veterans and military families, they serve the public because they provide many social services, including programs for children on the autism spectrum, English as a Second Language classes, and programs for adults with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments. Museums are a microcosmos of cultural exchanges, acceptance and economic power.

Moreover, museums are committed to ensuring that people of all backgrounds have access to high-quality experiences in their institutions. In 2012, 37% of museums were free at all times or had suggested admission fees only; nearly all the rest offered discounts or free admission days. Since 2014, more than 500 museums nationwide have facilitated more than 2.5 million museum visits for low-income Americans through the Museums for All program. About 26% of museums are located in rural areas; other museums reach these communities with traveling vans, portable exhibits and robust online resources.

Museums are involved with conservation breeding, habitat preservation, public education, field conservation, and supportive research to ensure survival for many of the planet’s threatened or endangered species. Museums also conduct or facilitate research to advance the scientific knowledge of the animals in human care and to enhance the conservation of wild populations.

Endangered Species by Andy Warhol |

This is why desperately need them. America without museums would lose tremendously in terms of credibility and opportunities. Sustaining a museum means saving the very communities we live in and the planet we call home.


Dr. Elizabeth Rodini, “A brief history of the art museum”

Joseph Lewis Ettle, “Irrational Exuberance: Calculating the Total Number of Museums in the United States”

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