Can this be history, or is it show-business? A crowd of tourists is pushing to get to the ticket desk, and an attendant is trying to explain that so many people want to get in that it is only possible to offer time-slots for later in the day. And this is for an exhibition about Elizabethan England at a London museum. How did museums become such a hot ticket? When I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts at school, I don't remember a class filled with urgent young historians, desperate to find out more about the statecraft of Good Queen Bess, or a crush at the front when the art teacher was showing pictures by the old masters. But now people queue for hours to glimpse a Vermeer, and galleries have to stay open late into the evening to meet the demand.
Museums have become prime locations on the tourist map. While proclaiming themselves to be academic institutions with a distinguished record of scholarship, museums are used as palaces of mass entertainment by tour buses.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the only place in the country with more visitors than the British Museum is Blackpool Pleasure Beach. And the museum might be catching up fast, having doubled its numbers since the early 1980s.
The popularity of museums has encouraged new ones to open, offering planners an irresistible combination of heritage and tourist attraction.
Wherever there is urban regeneration, a museum won't be far behind. Last month in London, bands, dancers and open-air festivities marked the opening of the Museum in Docklands.
But we shouldn't be too stuck up about this crossover between entertainment and education, because what has always made museums distinct from private collections is that they are open to a wider audience. Without a public, there's no museum.
It is difficult to say when the first museums appeared. About 4,000 years ago, Babylonian rulers gathered collections of antiquities and treasures.
And about 2,300 years ago, a museum in Alexandria provided collections of scrolls and manuscripts for scholars. But even though these buildings were dedicated to learning about the past, they were more like libraries than the modern concept of a museum.
There have also been claims that, in Ancient Greece and Rome, temples were the forerunners of museums, as they housed works of art dedicated to the gods or were used to display trophies and treasures won in conquests. These were public places where valuable and culturally significant items could be put on display.
The word museum means "seat of the muses", suggesting a spiritual, contemplative place. The design and architecture of institutions such as the British Museum, and the National Gallery in London, display many features borrowed from classical temples. But while temples often contained works of art, organised collections were not available to the public view.
The Romans and Saxons had no museums and during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, collecting art, historic items and curiosities remained the private preserve of the rich and powerful.
These private collections had no obligation of public service, but on occasions the public was allowed to look at these treasures. For instance, the Medici family in Florence allowed visitors to see its paintings in the Uffizi Palace from the 1580s.
The first public museum opened in Britain in May 1683. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was built around a collection of natural and historic items donated by Elias Ashmole, which was available to both academics and "ordinary folk". This upset some visiting academics, who were aghast that "even the women are allowed up here for sixpence".
This pragmatic, liberal approach continued with the opening of the British Museum in 1753, with public buildings being provided to give wider access to private collections. And it also continued the hybrid of public spectacle operating alongside academic research.
In 18th-century France, the opening of national museums had more to do with ideology. In the radical aftermath of the French Revolution, it was no longer acceptable for aristocrats or the monarchy to hold collections of treasure and artworks, and the state acted to create public institutions, such as the Louvre in 1793, where exhibits could be seen by everyone.
These museums were presented as places of public education, with free admission, opening times convenient to workers, a written explanation accompanying each exhibit, and cheap guidebooks to the exhibitions.
Early museums in Britain and France owed much to the spirit of the Enlightenment, with enquiring minds exploring, gathering and cataloguing information about the world around them. National museums in both countries were filled with acquisitions brought back by travellers and amateur archaeologists who picked their way through the ruins of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.
But the real building boom for museums in Britain came in the second half of the 19th century, the outcome of a combination of civic pride, a burgeoning empire, mass education and the growth of industry and science.
In the 1870s and '80s, more than 100 museums were opened in Britain.
Although repositories of national treasures and centres of research, these new museums owed as much to the exhibition hall as to the university. The Natural History Museum, with its brooding Romanesque arches, is deeply atmospheric, presenting its dinosaurs and dodos in a setting designed to impress as well as inform. Purists might have wanted a temple of knowledge, but museums have always had an element of showmanship as well as science about them.
In the 20th century, mass tourism brought in an even larger global audience and sparked another surge of museum building. In the US, two-fifths of all museums are less than 30 years old. Museums are keen to appeal to this international tourist market, but their galleries are unlikely to change much from year to year. The need for fresh appeal has been met by staging heavily marketed big exhibitions. These have included such show stoppers as the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972, which drew more than 1.5 million visitors.
Notwithstanding the crowd appeal of major exhibitions, financial problems have continued to plague the museum sector, which in Britain depends largely on public funding. Entrance charges became a feature of many museums during the 1990s, which drew accusations that national collections, held on behalf of the public, were being made inaccess-ible. But even with extra funding to allow the scrapping of admission charges, there have still been claims that museums are short of cash, and institutions such as the British Museum have temporarily closed galleries because of budget shortfalls.
Many mus-eums have also turned to private sponsorship, with galleries named after donors, or collections funded by individuals with a particular interest in a subject or region. Although this has sparked fears that commercial interests will lead to dumbing down, in many ways it's a continuation of the long tradition of support for museums coming from private collectors and wealthy patrons.
But questions remain about the purpose of a modern museum. Should they be heritage "theme parks" for day-trippers, appealing to families who are looking for entertainment? Or should they be more serious centres for popular education, structured around academic disciplines? More practically, how can they offer enough of both, to keep the punters happy while maintaining the dignity of the institution? And what tone should a museum strike when showing the nation's history? Should they celebrate national triumphs? Or should they be more sensitive to our changing place in the world? Museums in the West have come under increasing pressure to repatriate items taken from other countries many years ago, leading some museum leaders to talk of the concept of the "universal" museum, which rises above national boundaries.
There have also been concerns about the ethics of displaying the bodies of people from other countries and cultures which had no control over the seizure and exhibiting of their dead. Perhaps this gets close to the strange fusion of history and sensation-seeking that is a museum.
For example, one of the most popular exhibits in the British Museum is an Egyptian mummy, nicknamed "Ginger", who is on the must-see list with star attractions such as the Rosetta Stone and the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
It's hard to imagine how this man, who wandered the fields of Egypt more than 5,000 years ago, would have interpreted his resting place, lying in a glass case in rainy London, examined from every angle by millions of visitors - with his tuft of red hair, uncombed for 50 centuries, sharing top billing with one of the seven wonders of the world.
THE BRITISH MUSEUM.
This month, the British Museum is celebrating its 250th anniversary. Its development reflects how museums have evolved from private collections into major public attractions. It now has seven million historical objects, ranging in size from a huge statue of a winged bull down to a tiny coin weighing a fraction of a gramme. The oldest exhibit is a pebble tool that may be up to 1.6 million years old.
The museum began with 70,000 objects left in the will of Sir Hans Sloane, who offered his private collection to George II in exchange for a payment of pound;20,000 to his heirs. The pay-off for the collection, and the cost of housing the objects, was to be paid for by a national lottery, set up by the first board of trustees after the British Museum Act was passed in June 1753. A year later, parliament was investigating the "scandalous" way this lottery was being run. But the new museum went ahead, with the purchase of Montagu House on the Bloomsbury site. The doors were first opened to the public in January 1759, for three hours each day, with visitors having to apply in writing for tickets. These early visitors would have seen the museum's first Egyptian mummy, donated in 1756.
The museum's collection reflected military conquest and the tradition of private collectors and explorers bringing home artefacts from their travels. Sir William Hamilton brought back a collection of classical antiquities, including ancient Greek vases, that are still among the museum's finest treasures. He was the husband of Horatio Nelson's lover, Emma Hamilton. Captain James Cook filled a room with objects from his journeys to the South Seas. In 1801, following Britain's victory against France in Egypt, the museum acquired the Rosetta Stone, which enabled Egyptian hieroglyphics to be translated.
Another popular exhibit, sculptures from the Parthenon known as the Elgin Marbles, was acquired by 1816. By this time, tickets had been abolished and people could visit whenever they wanted. But children were not allowed in until 1851, and babies were barred until 1879.
The museum provided a library, and many writers, philosophers and political thinkers were attracted to the Reading Room. Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Karl Marx and Lenin were all members. Most of the library collection has been moved to the new British Library building at King's Cross, but the Reading Room has been restored and is now open to the public as part of the Great Court building, the largest glass-covered area in London.
One of the biggest changes has been the way that the museum has become part of the tourist trail. In its early days, it attracted about 5,000 visitors a year, admitted at the rate of no more than 10 per hour, compared with the 5.4 million who visited last year.
When admission charges were scrapped from many national museums 18 months ago, it was uncertain to what extent attendances would be affected. Charges had become part of museum life and it was unclear whether visitors would be influenced by the presence or absence of a cash till at the entrance. But almost immediately after entrance fees were dropped, it became apparent that museum attendances were rising sharply and that people really would visit more often when they didn't have to pay.
In the 12 months following the removal of charges, there was an average 70 per cent increase in visitor numbers. The Victoria and Albert Museum recorded an increase of 111 per cent, the Science Museum was up by 100 per cent and the Natural History Museum by 81 per cent, while the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside saw rises of 79 per cent. In total, four million extra visits were made to museums after charges were dropped.
Apart from attracting people who had been put off by the cost, making museums free also changed the patterns of how people used them. When museums were charging, there was pressure on visitors to get their money's worth by cramming everything into a single visit. But now people use them more like libraries, calling in for a brief visit or to see a single gallery and then returning for repeat visits. More children were brought to museums, with an increase in attendances of 78 per cent.
The removal of charges and the increases in visitor numbers prompted a study of national museum-going habits, with market research showing that museums have become a favourite outing. An estimated 37 per cent of the British public has visited a museum in the past 12 months - more than have been to the theatre, a pop concert, football match or theme park.
One intention of the free admissions policy was to increase access for people on lower incomes. The number of visiting pensioners rose by 93 per cent and the number from the lowest wage-earning groups rose by 30 per cent. But the bigger picture shows that it is still the better educated and better off who make the most use of museums - a stereotypical visitor might be a middle-class female graduate living in the south-east of England.
The debates over funding continue, with some institutions complaining they are not being compensated for the extra wear and tear caused by their new-found popularity. But the evidence of the free access experiment makes it clear that charges have a direct impact on how often we step inside a museum.