1. First- and second-generation museums

By the Renaissance, the term "museum" was applied to the room where a scholar examined and studied his collection of classical antiquities. But the notion of a public collection which could be viewed by all began as a result of the French Revolution and the opening of the Louvre Gallery in 1793. The British Museum had been established in 1759 but limited access to scholars.

These first generation museums, which are therefore 200 years old as a concept, are characterised by the glass case mentality and instructions not to touch -- places where something is worthy because it comes from long ago, far away or is otherwise outside our everyday experience. Interpretation is by small, typed cards and the occasional guide. Starting from the presumption of the visitor's ignorance and their own value, they depend on "experts" deciding what the public will see, do and learn. Essentially Platonic, they discourage activity.

It was the emergence of the World Expos, starting with the Great Exhibitions of London and Edinburgh in the 1850s, that set the scene for second generation museums. These, intended to show off the marvels of the industrial and design revolutions of the 19th Century, had their parallels in many countries and in most cases led to permanent exhibits in newly-created museums of science, technology, industry etc, many of which have joined the ranks of the world's great museums.

These second generation museums have buttons to push and things that go "whirr" -- exhibits where an action elicits a response which could be mechanical movement, information delivered, further choices offered, etc. At their worst, that's all they have. In biological terms, they are like simple reflexes. The older ones are still redolent of Victorian aspiration while the newer examples reflect the uncritical acceptance of salvationist post-war technology, tempered with the ecological realism of the 1980s. New technology has given us more interactive devices such as CD-ROM, CDi and hypertext. Yet these are still response-limited and are both finite and bounded -- they are only capable of a limited range of actions or responses and cannot stray outside the range of their programming. However, they are interactive and encourage dialogue, and as such are Socratic in conception.

The first and second generations of museums are more similar than they are different. The ethos is one of being told what to do, where to go, how to behave and has deviated from the original meaning of the mouseion (mouseion)—a temple dedicated to the Muses, a place of inspiration.