The forerunner of the modern cultural center was, in early colonial America, the church. The small communities established by immigrants on the North American continent were, by and large, single-denominational communities. Churches functioned as the center of community life. Proclamations from civic authorities were read in churches, trials were held in churches, and the milestones of life were observed in churches.
Eventually shifting from churches, formal cultural centers or associations began to emerge in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In part these were places for the wealthy to pursue philosophy and enjoy art performances in pleasant surroundings. Other cultural centers were founded by immigrant groups seeking the solace of a known language and familiar customs.
Today's ethnically focused cultural centers are often found in urban neighborhoods and serve as sources of cohesion and empowerment. They may offer literacy classes, voter registration, weddings, school immunizations, or classes in prenatal care. Their building may also house permanent or temporary art exhibits or may be used for performances. Public events in these centers may be open to everyone, regardless of background.
The forerunners of museums in colonial America were "cabinets of curiosities," or collections of unrelated objects that caught the imagination of collectors. These cabinets, which saw greatest growth in the early to mid-1700s, were often attached to a library society or college. Open by subscription to members but not to the general public, they offered lectures in the interest of advancing knowledge, as well as an opportunity to observe the collections. Some of the earliest cabinets were a scientific cabinet at Harvard College that traced its origins to the gift of a telescope by Governor John Winthrop in 1672; the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin; and the Charleston Museum, affiliated with a library, which sustained a devastating fire in 1778. The Charleston Museum was not entirely destroyed, and after decades, it was reborn under the naturalist and educator Louis Agassiz in about 1850, to become one of the nation's leading museums. The fire of 1778, however, marked a symbolic end to the elitist model of the cabinet and the start of the public museum in America.
The prototype of the modern public museum was Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum, a natural history museum that opened in 1786. Trained as a saddlemaker and painter, Peale developed the first formula for permanent preservation of species. He mounted the specimens in natural attitudes, posed them against habitat backgrounds he had painted, and labeled them according to the Linnean system of classification into genera and species. His grown children started several Peale museums in other cities. Peale constantly had to search for money to support his museum, and despite support from prominent citizens, including President Thomas Jefferson, the Philadelphia Museum was already failing at the time of Peale's death in 1827. Some of his mounted specimens made their way into the permanent collections of other museums, including the Peabody Museum at Harvard, but the bulk of the collection was bought by circus impresario P. T. Barnum. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Museum was successful for several decades, and Peale's techniques and ideas about exhibition defined museum directions for the next century.
The great period of museum building in the United States spanned more than a century, extending from the age of enlightenment through the industrial age. Museum building was driven by expeditions of exploration across the continent and in the waters of the Pacific, from which many exotic specimens and cultural artifacts from indigenous peoples were returned to cities on the Eastern Seaboard. In fact, the problem of warehousing so many articles was a crucial factor in the establishment of a national museum. Former Secretary of War Joel Poinsett established a private receivership for collections and pressed Congress for funding for a national museum. Congress resisted, but eventually, in 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution, backed by government money. The large variety of specimens, particularly those returned by explorers in the Pacific in the years 1838–1842, led to the separation of art and natural history into distinct museums within the Smithsonian and gave rise to the "nation's attic." Other museums founded in the golden age of museum building included the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Field Columbian Museum, later renamed the Field Museum of Natural History, also in Chicago. A few wealthy industrialists and merchants provided lasting endowments for many of these institutions.
In recent years, museum staffs have rejuvenated education as one of the dominant roles of a modern museum. Through interactive exhibits, self-learning programs, and exhibits emphasizing concepts over content, museums hope that visitors will better understand themselves, others, and the overlapping aesthetic, natural, and technological spheres that compose the modern world.
Museums have added a social and political dimension to their functions, with the repatriation of religious artifacts to the ancestral people of origin, focusing on cultural awareness and social purpose. In the mid- to late 1980s, museums began returning religious artifacts to Native American groups for resanctification and reburial. Repatriation was eventually codified into law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which took effect in 1990. Over a stated period of time, museums are required to inventory Native American items in their possession and return them to the appropriate tribes.
Another example of how museums encourage political and social change is in the field of ecology. As issues of the health of the environment and the presently high rate of species extinction arose in the national consciousness, museums found exceptional resources within their walls to illustrate these concepts. Interactive exhibits demonstrate that individuals can make a difference and that solutions require long-term efforts to restore the world's biological balance.