Discovered by archaeologist Leonard Wooley in 1925 while excavating a Babylonian Palace, the oldest museum was built by a Babylonian princess some 2,500 years ago. The first museums in history began as private collections of wealthy families or institutions of art and rare natural objects and artefacts which were displayed in so-called ‘wonder rooms’ or ‘cabinets of curiosities’.
Dating from c. 530 BC, the oldest museum in evidence was Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum, devoted to Mesopotamian antiquities. In the spirit of this early museum, here are the oldest museums in the world, still in existence.
1. Capitoline Museums
With the oldest public collection of art in the world, the Capitoline Museums were established in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of ancient sculptures to the people of Rome.
On top of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the Capitoline Museums are a group of art and archaeological museums in Piazza del Campidoglio which houses medieval and Renaissance art, coin and jewellery collections, and much more.
2. Vatican Museums
With its origins in the publically displayed sculptural collection begun in 1506 by Pope Julius II, the Vatican Museums are the second oldest museums in the world.
Located within the Vatican City, the Vatican Museums display pieces from the extensive collection gathered by the Roman Catholic Church over centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and the most noteworthy masterpieces of Renaissance art.
3. Royal Armouries in the Tower of London
Although it was only officially opened in 1660 – long before Australian sports betting – the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London had seen privileged visitors paying to see the armouries displays from 1592.
As Britain’s oldest museum and home to the world’s oldest visitor attraction, today the Royal Armouries are located across three different sites in England – the purpose built museum in Leeds, a Victorian fort at Fort Nelson in Portsmouth, and it’s original home at the Tower of London in the White Tower.
4. Ashmolean Museum
Britain’s first public museum and the oldest university museum in the world, the Ashmolean Museum received its first collection in 1677, the cabinet of curiosities of Elias Ashmole.
The building in which the museum is housed was finished in 1683 and today the museum is home to an elaborate collection of items with artistic and archaeological significance, including drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and watercolours by Turner.
5. Amerbach Cabinet
Starting as a private collection, the Amerbach Cabinet was purchased by the university and city of Basel, Switzerland in 1661 and opened to the public in 1671.
As the first and still existing public museum in the world, the Amerbach Cabinet collection is part of the rich cultural and historical heritage of the city.
6. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Established in Besançon in 1694 after Jean Baptiste Boisot, an abbot, donated his personal collection to the Benedictines of the city in order to initiate a museum open to the public 2 days every week, the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie is now famous for its immense collections of paintings, drawings, and archaeological artefacts.