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Libraries and Museums, Museums

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, baseball memorabilia, Native American artifacts, Art Institute of Chicago

The variety of print resources available in libraries is enormously augmented by the collections housed in museums. Although people often think of museums as places to view art, in fact museums house a great variety of collections, from rocks to baseball memorabilia. In the 20th century, the number of museums exploded. And by the late 20th century, as institutions became increasingly aware of their important role as interpreters of culture, they attempted to bring their collections to the general public. Major universities have historically also gathered various kinds of collections in museums, sometimes as a result of gifts. The Yale University Art Gallery, for example, contains an important collection of American arts, including paintings, silver, and furniture, while the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley specializes in archaeological objects and Native American artifacts.

The earliest museums in the United States grew out of private collections, and throughout the 19th century they reflected the tastes and interests of a small group. Often these groups included individuals who cultivated a taste for the arts and for natural history, so that art museums and natural history museums often grew up side by side. American artist Charles Willson Peale established the first museum of this kind in Philadelphia in the late 18th century.

The largest and most varied collection in the United States is contained in the separate branches of the Smithsonian Institution, which has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian, founded in 1846 as a research institution, developed its first museums in the 1880s. It now encompasses 16 museums devoted to various aspects of American history, as well as to artifacts of everyday life and technology, aeronautics and space, gems and geology, and natural history.

The serious public display of art began when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, founded in 1870, moved to its present location in Central Park in 1880. At its installation, the keynote speaker announced that the museumís goal was education, connecting the museum to other institutions with a public mission. The civic leaders, industrialists, and artists who supported the Metropolitan Museum, and their counterparts who established the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, were also collectors of fine art. Their collections featured mainly works by European masters, but also Asian and American art. They often bequeathed their collections to these museums, thus shaping the museumís policies and holdings. Their taste in art helped define and develop the great collections of art in major metropolitan centers such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. In several museums, such as the Metropolitan and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., collectors created institutions whose holdings challenged the cultural treasures of the great museums of Europe.

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