Evolution of museum display cases


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Museum display cases are invented to meet the needs of museums. The evolution of them inevitably goes with the development of museums. In this essay, we will discuss the Evolution of museum display cases  in four phases.

Phase I Conceiving period (3rd Century BC – 14th Century AD)

The temple of the Muses in the erudite garden of Alexandria, built in the 3rd century BC in the port city of Alexandria, Egypt, is the earliest museum in the West. The museum has special halls, research rooms, and exhibits related to astronomy, medicine, culture and art. It has to be some sort of museum display cases in this temple, but we are unable to restore them after all these years.

In the medieval, churches, monasteries, and missionary schools became major collectors of antiquities and religious artifacts. They took the role of museums, collecting and displaying objects. Museum showcases made in this period took serious consideration of structures of religious buildings, allowing easy access during display. Fig. 1-1 is an example of this type as in St. Peter’s Basilica.


Fig.1-1 St.Peter’s Basilica established in 14th century


Phase II Formation period (14th Century – 1680s)

During the Renaissance, collection of relics extended from religious groups to the wealthy. The development of navigation brought numerous exotic treasures and relics back to Europe, greatly boosted royal collection and private collection alike. Display cases were thus in great demand. The prototype of museum display cases was then introduced to collectors. Vitrines were divided in to several tiers so as to display more exhibits vertically. Besides display, function of storage was also integrated in this new type of showcases. However, since the collections still remained private, security measures were still missing in showcases of this period. Typical showcases of this time can be found in Fig.1-2 as in Royal Palace of Madrid


Fig.1-2 Royal Palace of Madrid

Phase III Early development of museum display cases (18th century-1950s)

The French Revolution in the 18th century opened the Louvre to the public. This marked the publization of museums. With the aid of Industrial Revolution, public museums witnessed a rapid growth. Uprising museums were founded here and there, inside and outside of Europe, in rising capitalist countries. Museum showcases developed in various regions bore distinct signature of the local culture. For instance, museum showcases in British Museum were made of wooden frames with glass panels in the form of traditional European furniture, which delivered air of classical and elegant. While in Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcases took the form of large scale glass fitted in simple structures, a typical look of contemporary style. Showcases in Edo-Tokyo Museum combined both. Transparent glass top plus dark plinth, a perfect marriage between chic and composed. Museums can also be classified into three categories by nature: art museums, history museums and science museums. Each category had its favourite display cases. Wall cases are commonly used in history museums to display series of artifacts in time line. As illustrated in Fig.1-5 British Museum. Freestanding cases are often seen in art museums to exhibit bespoke pieces. As shown in Fig.1-6 Metropolitan Museum of Art. Science museums usually held large scale specimen, thus required colossal showcases. As can be seen in Fig.1-7 National Museum of Natural History, U.S.A. The transformation from private collection to public display placed new security challenge on museum display cases.



Fig.1-3 Vitrines in Natural History Museum, Vienna



Fig.1-5 British Museum



Fig.1-6 Metropolitan Museum of Art


Fig.1-7 National Museum of Natural History, U.S.A.


Phase IV Rapid development of museum display cases (1950s-now)

The end World War II ushered in a new era of development featuring peace and development. With the rapid development of scientific and technological innovation, museums draw on mass high-tech achievements for their management, exhibition and research works. Museum display cases took advantage of the innovation as well. The design concept evolved from enabling visitors to appreciate exhibits conveniently to helping people visit exhibitions comfortably. Safety measures have upgraded from general securities to scientific protections. Recently, showcases even broke through the boundary of physical limits to virtual ones.


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