When a book takes 25 years to complete, it should be worth waiting for. Arthur MacGregor’s Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from Sixteenth to Nineteenth Century certainly is.

It is an outstanding achievement, written by an academic who largely invented the idea of the history of museums.

Arthur began thinking about this book when he first took on the post of curator in the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, a position he held for more than 25 years.

As a newly retired curator he is now a Monument Fellow, funded by the Monument Trust, and he is spending time collating his amassed knowledge so that it will not be lost.

Often when an experienced curator or specialist professional leaves a museum, much of their knowledge of the collection — accumulated over several decades — leaves with them.

A new scheme, funded by the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trust, aims to address this problem.

The fellowship is not for research, but to record and share the fellow’s existing knowledge for the benefit of the museum they have left, also the wider museum sector and ultimately the public at large.

Arthur MacGregor is one of eight retired curators who have been appointed Monument Fellows for 2008/9.

This means that while he now lives in London, he comes back to visit Oxford frequently.

His interests span the period from the Roman Empire to the 19th century and his publication record includes volumes on the Ashmolean’s Roman engraved gems, Anglo-Saxon and Migration Period antiquities as well as the museum’s founding collection from the 17th century.

Naturally, he has published widely on the history of the museum and written several popular guides to the Ashmolean.

He also has a long-standing interest in the interface between man and the animal world, which is why Curiosity and Enlightenment is by no means his last book.

Now that it is finished, he is working on another book, Man and the Animal World, which he is convinced he can complete in 18 months rather than 25 years.

Like so many academics who have spent much of their working lives in Oxford, Arthur MacGregor is a modest, gently spoken man who has amassed an amazing amount of knowledge, which he wishes to share.

Curiosity and Enlightenment is a fascinating book which gives us the history of museum collecting in western Europe over the course of its formative centuries, tracing its origins from the culture of collecting that emerged during the Renaissance, which served the purposes of both prestige and academic onquiry and concluding with the great changes of the 19th century, which would prove so influential to the museum movement of later years.

He traces the growth of the modern museum from the early relic collections of the Roman Catholic church, through the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ assembled by princes and scholars, to the large and public institutions such as the Louvre and British Museum.

It is an outstanding achievement and eminently readable, as it works on several levels. Visually, it is particularly appealing, though acquiring the photographs and illustrations proved to be an exacting task.

He explained: “When I approached Yale University Press and discussed the possibility of writing this book, the Press had a team of picture researchers who undertook that work.

“Pictures didn’t seem a problem then.

“However, by the time I had handed in the manuscript, this task had become the author’s responsibility.”

Naturally this put the publication date back even further.

For more than a year Arthur MacGregor worked on acquiring the 196 photographs he needed if his book was to be illustrated as he envisaged.

lCuriosity and Enlightenment is published by Yale University Press at £45.