The Origin of Museums in India: A Walk Through History

ashmolean museum

In this three-part series, Poulomi Das will take us through the history, present and future of museums in India. In this post, we take a walk through the origin of museums.

When you visit a museum and look at objects placed within glass cases, some observing you with a forlorn expression, you might have wondered how they landed there. Who is responsible for picking these artifacts and choosing how to display them? Who imagined that a small text was adequate to describe them? Who thought of the first glass cases and wooden cabinets? When did the idea of a museum take shape in India?

We can associate the underlying idea of a museum to human curiosity. Humans have always been curious to understand their environment and the people who are part of it. One of the most interesting ways to achieve this is to examine the objects everyone creates. Historically, the beginning of acquiring and displaying objects of curiosity and art can be traced to the Renaissance in Europe, somewhere in the 14th century. This was the period when the world was becoming more accessible with the opening of new trade routes from Europe and the idea of acquiring objects from these new regions held appeal. Wealthy individuals now started buying and receiving objects for display at home and in their estates, thus laying the foundation for private collections.


These collections attained a high social and historical value, placing their owners in prominent place in society. They also proved to be an aesthetic and pleasant means of learning about the world. The urge to extend knowledge to the public through private collections took shape in 1523 when the Grimani brothers donated their collections to the City of Venice.

Gradually, the concept of dedicating a building to house these collections began to hold currency. The word museum owes its origins to the Greek ‘mouseion,’ meaning ‘seat of the muses,’ and was used to denote a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation. It was used for the first time by Ptolemy I Soter for the great museum founded by him in the 3rd century BCE at Alexandria, though that was mainly a library or a prototype university. It was only in the 17th century that the term gained currency all around Europe to describe collections of curiosities.

Ashmolean was the first museum to open to the public in 1682, consisting of the collections of John Tradescant, bought by Elias Ashmole, and donated to the Oxford University. Although there is some ambivalence in the use of museum in the legislation, drafted in 1753, founding the British Museum, nevertheless the idea of an institution called a museum and established to preserve and display a collection to the public was well established in the 18th century. Indeed, Denis Diderot outlined a detailed scheme for a national museum for France in the ninth volume of his Encyclopédie, published in 1765 (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica).

In India, with the entry of the British, French, Portuguese, Danish, and Armenian traders beginning in the 13th century, the objects of trade such as textiles and decorative arts garnered much interest and appreciation. They moved beyond the realms of trade and represented an ‘exotic’ new culture.


When the British colonized the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century, the European idea of the museum percolated to India. Sir William Jones, one of the first British historians, formed the Asiatic Society in 1784 at Calcutta (now Kolkata) to study India’s cultural and historical heritage, and disseminate it. This was the germination of the seed of the idea to have a permanent space dedicated to displaying objects and in 1796 the members of the Asiatic Society approved the proposal to start a museum.

India’s first museum was set up at Asiatic Society, 1 Park Street, Calcutta in 1814, and was called ‘Imperial Museum’ to be changed later to ‘Indian Museum’. It still is one of the largest museums in India.

In the second part of this series, I will take my readers through the history of contemporary museums. 

About the Author

Poulomi Das

Poulomi Das is a multi-disciplinary professional with experience in interpretation, curation, collection management, and research. She has worked on several museums and heritage space projects in India. You can get in touch with her at


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