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Editorial IBSA18 May 20246 min read

The role of museums today, yesterday and tomorrow

Historically, museums were temples for preserving treasures and protecting cultural heritage. But their role has now changed: these days they can be regarded as so much more than mere containers of objects. Modern museums are called on to guide the public, offering perspectives and tools for interpreting contemporary society. As such, they become special spaces where we can understand and make sense of the world. 

International Museum Day 2024

International Museum Day — held every year on 18 May — was created in 1977 by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), to draw attention to the social and cultural role of these institutions. 
The theme for 2024 is ‘Museums for Education and Research’1. It invites us to rethink museums: viewing them not only as places of contemplation, but as active learning spaces. Museums aren’t solely custodians of heritage, but hubs that foster curiosity, culture, creativity and critical thinking. ‘Museums for Education and Research’ reminds us that they are places of discovery, where we can explore new ideas. They are bustling spaces where we learn and discover, helping us gain a better understanding of the world around us.

Etymology of the word museum. What was the museum in ancient times?

The word 'museum' has its roots in classical mythology and comes from the Greek Μουσεῖον2, meaning the holy place of the Muses. The Muses were nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (‘Memory’), and their guide was Apollo. They were key figures for the Greeks, custodians of culture and the arts, keepers of songs and memory.
The concept of the museum was very different in ancient times to what it is today. Back then, art wasn’t confined to the museum: people had plenty of opportunities to admire beauty, or enjoy artworks. Art was all around them, from royal palaces and temples to public arenas and libraries. But the ancient meaning related to preserving memory and promoting arts and culture is still very much in place today.  

So how has the concept of the museum changed over time?

History shows us how the nature of museums has never stopped changing. Let’s reflect on how they’ve evolved over time: the first forerunners included the small Renaissance studies, or 'studioli', of the 16th century, places devoted to the study and contemplation of artworks; then, from the 16th to the 18th century came the Wunderkammer (which literally translates from German as a ‘room of wonder’), where private collectors would keep collections of extraordinary items; finally, towards the end of the 18th century, the first museums as we know them today arrived on the scene. 

The 1970s ushered in a momentous change in the concept of the museum. From a stagnant and closed place, it became one where people could meet up and be entertained, thus embracing a new identity imbued with vitality and verve, as well as artistic enjoyment. This transformation peaked in the 1990s with the dawn of the ‘hyper-museum’, or ‘museum of hyper-consumption’, where the building itself becomes part and parcel of the artistic experience. Alongside this, museums of sculpture, or ‘ArchiSculptures’ — which blend art and architecture in a single experience — grew in popularity.

These days, museums are becoming increasingly well integrated into town and city life, becoming real landmarks. Museum management strategies should aim to bring communities together, foster competitiveness and enhance general wellbeing.

The scientific community is increasingly recognising the role of art and the humanities in creating wellbeing, and the extent to which museums are now more and more essential in relieving stress, enhancing mood and boosting people’s mental and physical wellbeing (which we spoke about in this article).

It is becoming more and more evident that these spaces don’t just exhibit artworks: they play a pivotal role in promoting and celebrating the artistic and cultural diversity of the local area. Museums serve as bridges between their physical setting and the sweeping artistic landscape they represent. They must shoulder the responsibility of forging relationships with associations, foundations, schools, enterprises and other local players, thus fostering fruitful synergies and partnerships. This relationship is vital in ensuring that a museum remains relevant and meaningful in contemporary society.

IBSA Foundation: partnerships and projects with museums

From day one, IBSA Foundation has been promoting science that is accessible to everyone, by using simple and engaging language. Its mission recognises the value of establishing strong partnerships with museums, both locally and internationally, finding yet another way to disseminate scientific knowledge and inform the public, helping people understand the world of the future and fostering dialogue between the sciences and the humanities.

The long-standing partnership with MASI Lugano
IBSA Foundation has established a much-valued partnership with MASI Lugano (Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana [Museum of Art of Italian Switzerland]), giving rise to interesting events focusing on the relationship between science and art, first through the ‘La Scienza a regola d'Arte’  format, and later via the more recent SciArt SwitzerlAnd project.
But their joint commitment doesn’t stop there: the Foundation stands alongside MASI as a Scientific Partner, providing financial support for initiatives and exhibition projects benefiting the community and the canton of Ticino. 

Partnerships with Italian museums
With neighbouring Italy, the Foundation has nurtured two strong partnerships over the years, again as a scientific research partner: the partnership with MUST (Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia di Milano [National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan]), which was set up in the 500th anniversary year of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, and the one with MUSE (Museo delle Scienze di Trento [Trento Science Museum]), a cultural landmark in the city.

The Digital Aesthetics project, carried out in collaboration with MUST, is a clear example of how the museum has evolved into a place of reflection, entertainment and discovery. By way of a permanent programme of digital art installations, the public is invited to reflect on new digital languages and to explore relationships with artificial intelligence and the links between technological innovations and artistic creative processes.

Initiatives at museums in German-speaking Switzerland
In 2024, IBSA Foundation launched a pioneering project for secondary school pupils in German-speaking Switzerland, called Museum Tour. Six different museums are taking part in this initiative, running free museum workshops for the pupils. This is a shining example of how the Foundation succeeds in introducing children to science in a progressive, multidisciplinary way.

When foundations, museums and cultural institutions work together, they can play a key role in developing society, fostering people’s wellbeing and spreading knowledge. These synergies prove that it is possible to introduce the public to complex themes by using art and innovation as tools for sharing. This approach contributes to building a more aware and participatory society.


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Editorial IBSA

The IBSA Foundation for scientific research promotes authoritative and accessible science education for health protection and supports young students and researchers through Fellowships and many other dedicated events.