Museum - American EducationAn educative institution for procuring, preserving, studying, storing and exhibiting objects of artistic, historic or scientific interest. Museums may be privately or publicly owned and operated as profit-making or nonprofit institutions. Derived from the Greek word mouseion, meaning “temple of the Muses,” the first museum was founded in Alexandria, Egypt, by the Greek ruler of Egypt Ptolemy I in 290 B.C. Used as a library, lecture hall, botanical garden and astronomical observatory, it also housed statues and portrait busts. In one respect, at least, such displays were not new, for the temples of ancient Greece were also filled with statues and paintings, as well as vases, gold and silver—all dedicated to the gods but on display for the public to see and enjoy. Roman temples added gardens, baths and theaters, along with booty from foreign wars. During the Middle Ages, the churches and monasteries of Europe added jewels, manuscripts and saints’ relics to the statuary and paintings that, by then, were standard fare of such public collections. Many cathedrals sold artifacts from their treasuries to finance wars, and their holdings rose or fell depending on whether their lords were victorious in battle.
The modern museum has its roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, when European nobility began opening specific rooms of their palaces for viewing by invitation during certain times of the week. As the nobility were overthrown and their palaces seized by popular governments, the state gradually acquired and continues to maintain control of the huge palaces of Europe and their great art collections.
The American museum developed quite differently, having its roots firmly tied to Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Library Co., founded in 1731, and the forerunner of American public libraries. Once well stocked with books, the library added scientific apparatus, fossils, specimens and other curiosities to supplement the information found in books and thereby became “a more complete instrument for the storing and diffusing of knowledge.” The personal and institutional libraries that emerged thereafter followed the Philadelphia Library’s example. Some became quite specialized. Philadelphia physician and anatomy professor Caspar Wistar, for example, amassed a collection of specimens that became the basis for the University of Pennsylvania’s anatomical museum. New York botanist-physician David Hosack collected mineral specimens that he gave to the College of New Jersey. In the 1750s, Harvard College developed a “Repository of Curiosities,” which expanded the scope of American museum collections and, a century later, became the University Museum in Cambridge.
None of these was open to the general public. In 1773, however, the Library Society of Charleston put together a collection of materials that displayed the natural history of South Carolina and, after considering “the many advantages and great credit that would result,” became the first museum in the American colonies to open its doors to the public. Even after museums opened to the public, neither students nor the general public showed much interest in them and they stood empty most of the time. It took two brilliant entrepreneurs with extraordinary marketing skills and a sense of showmanship to turn the American museum into a mass educative institution. What each realized was that few Americans attended school and that they thirsted for easily palatable knowledge.
Philadelphia engraver CHARLES WILLSON PEALE had started painting miniature portraits of colonial leaders in 1777, while an officer in the Continental Army. In 1782, he decided to commemorate the war and its heroes by opening a portrait gallery in an exhibition room he added to his home. Two years later, a German scholar asked Peale to make sketches of some mammoth bones, which Peale put on display in his gallery and which soon drew swarms of curious visitors. Intense public interest convinced him to convert his portrait gallery into a museum whose displays would present a history of the development of the entire world of nature. To enhance public enjoyment and instruction in the new museum, he spent two years, from 1784 to 1786, developing a new technique of “moving pictures,” which combined a series of painted glass transparencies he made with sound and lighting effects that appeared to show nature undergoing various changes before the viewer’s eyes.
He was now ready to launch his new enterprise. His museum was not only inundated with eager visitors, he was also soon deluged by contributions of birds, snakes, fish, fossils, insects, minerals and a variety of living animals, including bears, monkeys, parrots, an old eagle and other beasts, plus an equal variety of dead animals, including the bones of a mastodon, whose standing skeleton he reconstructed. He moved his museum into the abandoned Pennsylvania State House and called it, simply, “MUSEUM: GREAT SCHOOL OF NATURE.” A sign over a second entrance read, “SCHOOL OF WISDOM: The book of nature open—explore the wondrous work, an institute of laws eternal.” Aside from the neverbefore- seen exhibits, the museum, which supported Peale quite handsomely the rest of his life, offered lectures for those who wanted a greater depth of information and, of course, the great gallery of portraits of American heroes, whom Peale had painted. Peale’s museum, which his sons took over after he retired in 1810, became the model for a host of other, similar museums. In New York, the Tammany Society opened the American Museum in 1791, and Peale’s son Rembrandt, also a gifted artist, opened a second Peale’s Museum in Baltimore, where his own paintings became famous. A second Peale son, Rubens, opened still another Peale’s Museum in New York in 1825. The depression of 1837 forced the American Museum to the brink of failure and Peale’s New York Museum into bankruptcy. In 1841, Phineas T. Barnum snapped up both institutions. Then an itinerant showman managing traveling troupes and exhibits of curiosities, he merged the two museums, added new exhibits, built stages for sideshows and for formal entertainment, and continually flooded New York City with publicity about various “transient attractions” that appeared “for a limited time only”: educated dogs, jugglers, ventriloquists, giants, dwarfs, singers, musicians, Indians performing war dances, mermaids and “a wilderness of wonderful, instructive, amusing realities.”
In effect, Peale had converted the museum into an institution of entertaining instruction and Barnum reconverted it into an institution of instructive entertainment. Throughout the 1870s, Barnum’s Museum was “the town wonder [and] the town talk,” and it drew hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. It was moved into new, larger quarters three times. All eventually burned down, but the Barnum Museum left Barnum a wealthy man, and it left what eventually became the American Museum of Natural History with a fine collection of specimens, including the skeleton of “Jumbo” the elephant.
But the Peale and Barnum varieties of the American museum were not the only models. While they were entertaining the public at large, smaller, specialized museums dedicated to scholarship were rising: the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791, “to seek and find, to preserve and communicate literary intelligence, especially in the historical way”; the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1802, to collect copies of European sculpture, architecture and painting, as teaching tools for young American artists and as a means of edifying the public; the New York Historical Society in 1804; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1805; and the Academy of Natural Science, in Philadelphia, in 1812. Most, however, were reserved for scholars and had little interest for the general public.
As the post–Civil War era produced huge fortunes for industrial entrepreneurs, many of the latter adopted the notion set forth by Andrew Carnegie that wealth carried with it public responsibility. The eminence he had attained founding libraries soon enticed others of wealth to contribute to the founding of public institutions. Out of this public benevolence emerged several hundred museums in all sizes and shapes and with a wide variety of collections. The giant art museums included the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Chicago Art Institute. Smaller cities boasted smaller art museums such as the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, in Providence, and the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut. The largest cities also boasted giant science museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, in New York; the Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia; the Field Columbian Museum, in Chicago; and the National Museum of the SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, in Washington. Meanwhile, many colleges and universities had opened their own art and science museums, and many cities opened history museums ranging from the New-York Historical Society to historic houses, such as Washington’s Headquarters, in Newburgh, New York.
By 1910, there were 600 museums in the United States, and by 1939 the number had climbed to about 2,500, most of them built after World War I. Although most, from the day they first opened their doors, publicly proclaimed their dedication to public education, few actually welcomed the public. In fact, most saw their mission as preservation, custodianship, research and, only occasionally, public display, which they feared would bring ruin to their collections. Some maintained limited educational facilities, such as small schools for the instruction of advanced artists; others allowed scholars to use their facilities for research. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was among the exceptions. Opened in 1876, it saw itself as an educational institution from the start, operating a School of Drawing and Painting and opening its doors to the public, free of charge, two days a week.
The debate over the public, educative responsibilities of museums raged on throughout the first half of the 20th century. “If a library be not a live educational institution, it were better never established,” argued John Cotton Dana, the founder and innovative curator of the Newark Museum in New Jersey. “A museum is an educational institution set up and kept in motion that it may help the members of its community become happier, wiser and more effective.” Dana had the support of Laurence Vail Coleman, author of the first survey of American museums. An outspoken advocate of the concept of the museum as an educative institute, Coleman published his massive three-volume work entitled The Museum in America: A Critical Study in 1939, when museum construction had reached its peak. “Heretofore,” he wrote, “teaching has been largely the business of a few conventional agencies—the school and the college, in particular— but observers see that some of the less practical agencies, including museums, are now . . . swinging into educational work . . . because they have collections that must inevitably be drawn upon for interpreting nature to man and man to himself.”
By 1939, the Great Depression and the closed-door posture of many museums had alienated the general public. Declining attendance was threatening many with bankruptcy. Metropolitan Museum of Art director Francis Henry Taylor warned his colleagues in the American Association of Museums, “We have reached a critical period in American museums. . . . It is impossible for us to continue as we have done in the past. The public is no longer impressed with the museums and is frankly bored with their inability to serve it. The people have had their bellyful of prestige and spending of vast sums of tax-levied or taxexempted funds for the interest and pleasure of the initiated few.”
After World War II, Taylor’s admonition had its desired effect, as museums across the United States transformed themselves into “people’s palaces,” staging popular “blockbuster” exhibits, complete with entertaining, instructive audiotapes visitors could play on individual headsets that “guided” them through the exhibits. Museums also offered the public various types of membership that entitled them to private showings of special exhibits, receptions and even guided overseas travel in the company of scholars. Many museums have weekly cocktail receptions for the public, complete with chamber music and other types of entertainment. Almost all stay open at least one or two evenings a week to accommodate a wider range of visitors.
In addition to expanded entertainment programs, almost all museums have also expanded their educational functions and provide a wide variety of active, formal educational programs for schoolchildren of all ages, for adult amateur artists and scholars, and for professional artists and scholars. Many also have working relationships with nearby colleges and universities and participate in joint education programs. Many museums also make much or even all of their collections publicly available for viewing and study worldwide on the Internet.