If you do a general Google search for museums you will quickly find any variety of museums, from the historic and renowned such as the Smithsonian family of institutions and Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the not so well known or renowned museums such as the National Knife Museum (Chattanooga, TN), the The Burlingame Museum of Pez Memoriabilia (yes there is a museum dedicated to the culture of the candy dispenser), or the National Museum of Funeral History (I can only imagine the exhibits and education programs that this organization has to come up with). Why has there been such a proliferation of museums over the past 50 years that cover so many diverse topics?
I think generally it boils down to the fact that most people are naturally curious and want to learn new things. Obviously there must be some level of demand and interest in order to open a new museum. OK, maybe not always...I am sure there are people out there who are collectors of velvet Elvises or pet rocks who just thrive off of the satisfaction they receive from being able to show off their personal treasures. But, I think for the most part, museums are built and maintained for people to actually see items and artifacts of a past era in order to make connections and sense of the present, and even possibly speculate on the future.
Museums are important because they tell us stories that we can't get as well from books or recordings, or even photographs. For me at least, there is a great difference in seeing a picture of Abraham Lincoln's top hat and personally viewing the actual thing at the National Museum of American History. Museums are fundamental to the conservation, protection, and display of items of the past. Without museums we would lose those physical links to the past. But museums have become so much more than buildings with glass cases (called curiosity cabinets in days-gone-by), they are centers for informal learning...educating us about the lives and cultures of the past.
Museums have gone hi-tech with great effect. Recently I went to the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., which has just recently received a major renovation. In an exhibit called The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, they have a Huey helicopter from Vietnam displayed, and with it a video program that lets one select veterans to tell their stories. One story was given by an African American medic that was so powerful I found myself tearing up. Now, I visited lots of museums and have seen some emotionally moving exhibits, but something in this one really made me think and feel that unique devotion soldiers have to one another and their country.
If you haven't been to a museum lately take a weekend day and just go. Almost every community has a county historical society or local museum that is just waiting for visitors to come learn about their collections...and who need your financial support. Explore away!