Modern museums first emerged in western Europe, then spread into other parts of the world. Prospective visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for admission, and small groups were allowed into the galleries each day.
The first “public” museums were often accessible only by the middle and upper classes. It could be difficult to gain entrance. When the British Museum opened to the public in 1759, it was a concern that large crowds could damage the artifacts.
The British Museum became increasingly popular during the 19th century, amongst all age groups and social classes who visited the British Museum, especially on public holidays.
The Ashmolean Museum, however, founded in 1677 from the personal collection of Elias Ashmole, was set up in the University of Oxford to be open to the public and is considered by some to be the first modern public museum. The collection included that of Elias Ashmolewhich he had collected himself, including objects he had acquired from the gardeners, travellers and collectors John Tradescant the elderand his son of the same name.
The collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, and zoological specimens—one of which was the stuffed body of the last dodo ever seen in Europe; but by 1755 the stuffed dodo was so moth-eaten that it was destroyed, except for its head and one claw. The museum opened on 24 May 1683, with naturalist Robert Plot as the first keeper. The first building, which became known as the Old Ashmolean, is sometimes attributed to Sir Christopher Wren or Thomas Wood.
In France, the first public museum was the Louvre Museum in Paris, opened in 1793 during the French Revolution, which enabled for the first time free access to the former French royal collections for people of all stations and status. The fabulous art treasures collected by the French monarchy over centuries were accessible to the public three days each “décade” (the 10-day unit which had replaced the week in the French Republican Calendar).
The Conservatoire du muséum national des Arts (National Museum of Arts’s Conservatory) was charged with organizing the Louvre as a national public museum and the centerpiece of a planned national museum system. As Napoléon I conquered the great cities of Europe, confiscating art objects as he went, the collections grew and the organizational task became more and more complicated.
After Napoleon was defeated in 1815, many of the treasures he had amassed were gradually returned to their owners (and many were not). His plan was never fully realized, but his concept of a museum as an agent of nationalistic fervor had a profound influence throughout Europe.
Chinese and Japanese visitors to Europe were fascinated by the museums they saw there, but had cultural difficulties in grasping their purpose and finding an equivalent Chinese or Japanese term for them.
Chinese visitors in the early 19th century named these museums based on what they contained, so defined them as “bone amassing buildings” or “courtyards of treasures” or “painting pavilions” or “curio stores” or “halls of military feats” or “gardens of everything”.
Japan first encountered Western museum institutions when it participated in Europe’s World’s Fairs in the 1860s. The British Museum was described by one of their delegates as a ‘hakubutsukan’, a ‘house of extensive things’ – this would eventually became accepted as the equivalent word for ‘museum’ in Japan and China.
American museums eventually joined European museums as the world’s leading centers for the production of new knowledge in their fields of interest. A period of intense museum building, in both an intellectual and physical sense was realized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (this is often called “The Museum Period” or “The Museum Age”).
While many American museums, both natural history museums and art museums alike, were founded with the intention of focusing on the scientific discoveries and artistic developments in North America, many moved to emulate their European counterparts in certain ways (including the development of Classical collections from ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Rome).
Drawing on Michel Foucault‘s concept of liberal government, Tony Bennett has suggested the development of more modern 19th century museums was part of new strategies by Western governments to produce a citizenry that, rather than be directed by coercive or external forces, monitored and regulated its own conduct.
To incorporate the masses in this strategy, the private space of museums that previously had been restricted and socially exclusive were made public. As such, objects and artifacts, particularly those related to high culture, became instruments for these “new tasks of social management.”
 Universities became the primary centers for innovative research in the United States well before the start of the Second World War. Nevertheless, museums to this day contribute new knowledge to their fields and continue to build collections that are useful for both research and display.