The Evolution of Museums

Catherine Lewis, in The Changing Face of Public History: The Chicago Historical Society and the Transformation of an American Museum, uses the Chicago Historical Society (CHS) as a case study through which to examine the rise of multiculturalism, erosion of expert authority,  culture wars, and the consequences of blending popular and academic understandings of the past in museums in the twentieth century. CHS’s experiences in the late twentieth century sheds light on two imperative issues: the responsibilities museums have to their constituencies, and how and in what forms museums will survive. Lewis also studies the ways in which interpretive authority has gradually devolved from being the sole domain of the curator to including an institution’s audiences in the process of selecting, arranging, and analyzing material objects in exhibits and collections.

Lewis takes the reader through the administrative history of the CHS in what is perhaps the driest chapter of the book, and then moves on to analyzing CHS’s famous exhibit We the People: Creating a New Nation, 1765-1820. This exhibit was significant because it included the perspectives and the roles played by less represented populations, including indentured servants, women, children, artisans, farmers, Native Americans, and enslaved and free blacks, in the founding of the nation. The exhibit curators intentionally combined political and social history and wanted to explore the ways in which the diverse population of the early nation shaped the political process and how political decisions affected social relationships. The third chapter of the book was especially interesting because Lewis takes the reader through the process of creating We the People step by step, and details the fight for funding, the struggle to create a historically accurate and yet accessible exhibit for a non-academic audience, and identifies the reasons for the exhibit’s enduring popularity. Lewis ably contrasts the success of We the Nation with a much less well-received set of exhibits, Neighborhoods: Keepers of Culture. Prior to the unveiling of Neighborhoods, the CHS underwent significant changes, including a new management structure, building renovation, and a revamping of their education division. Included in these changes was a revised mission statement. The CHS reoriented itself to interpret and present a diverse history of the city and expanded its audiences to students, families with small children, scholars, senior citizens, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. For the Neighborhoods project, the staff of CHS collaborated with its constituencies and invited community activists and scholars specializing in urban or neighborhood history to join an advisory committee, and selected areas of the city that were geographically, ethnically, historically, and economically diverse. The Neighborhoods project was not successful. The process of creation was exclusive–individuals who did not participate were frequently suspicious of a white institution coming in to do their history; language barriers were a problem; and serious issues like gangs, drugs, crime, violence, and teen pregnancy remained unaddressed. The Neighborhoods project revealed that a full sharing of authority is an unrealistic goal. Lewis ends her study of the CHS by recapping the long-term effects of CHS’s changes, and the methods employed by that institution that were successful and unsuccessful.

In Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926, Steven Conn posits that “museums were centrally important places in the intellectual landscape at the turn of the century, and they are rich sources for us to understand that moment.” (15) Conn begins his study in 1876, which he notes is a marker for the age of museum building, and ends in 1926, with Philadelphia’s failed sesquicentennial celebration. His work charts the growth and eventual downfall of object-based epistemology, the notion which guided museum builders in the late nineteenth century that assumes objects are sources of knowledge and meaning, and are able to tell stories to an untrained observer without accompanying text or context.

Conn charts the creation of natural history and anthropology museums. Both types of institutions were designed based on an object-based epistemology: objects and specimens were displayed in endless glass cases and were ordered in such a way that was demonstrative of a positivist, progressive view of human history. Darwinism and academic science eventually displaced natural history museums as the primary sites of natural history pedagogy, and, with Franz Boas’s influence, anthropology became an academic discipline. Conn details Wilson’s work in establishing the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, which also relied on an object-based epistemology and pushed for international trade and commerce. Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and Museum and the Mercer Museum are comparatively analyzed, as both institutions were founded to house and display objects that paid homage to America’s past while linking the nation’s history to its present. Both Ford and Mercer believed that American history was the history of ordinary people, and that history could be told through objects. Conn then uses the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, to a greater extent, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Design, as case studies in his examination of the creation of fine art institutions. The comparative framework that worked so well to compare and contrast the Mercer Museum with Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum was not as successful in this later usage. The Pennsylvania Museum was initially concerned with showcasing industrial art, but by the 1920s it had re-orientated itself–partly due to the museum’s acceptance of the Wilstach Collection of over 300 European paintings, Widener’s influence, and the creation of new physical space–and had become a museum dedicated to displaying “high art.” Conn ends his study by examining the failure of the Sesquicentennial and Americans’ changing relationship with the past. By the 1920s, objects no longer held the same kind of explanatory power that they once had, and museums had to adapt and become places of entertainment and amusement rather than the primary sites of knowledge production and consumption.

Both of these texts demonstrate a certain kind of evolution occurring at an institutional level in museums. Lewis reveals how the CHS has adapted the methods of the new social history into its institutional practices, and how those in leadership positions have worked to decentralize their interpretive authority and to address and collaborate with a diverse audience. Conn demonstrates how the epistemological framework that museums operated from in the late nineteenth century was gradually replaced with a push toward the academy–or, in the case of art museums, toward “fine art” that was less accessible to the general public–and a reorientation of Americans’ relationship with the past.

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