Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century

Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century

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Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century by Karen A. Rader, Victoria E. M. Cain

Rich with archival detail and compelling characters, Life on Display uses the history of biological exhibitions to analyze museums’ shifting roles in twentieth-century American science and society. Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain chronicle profound changes in these exhibitions—and the institutions that housed them—between 1910 and 1990, ultimately offering new perspectives on the history of museums, science, and science education.
Rader and Cain explain why science and natural history museums began to welcome new audiences between the 1900s and the 1920s and chronicle the turmoil that resulted from the introduction of new kinds of biological displays. They describe how these displays of life changed dramatically once again in the 1930s and 1940s, as museums negotiated changing, often conflicting interests of scientists, educators, and visitors. The authors then reveal how museum staffs, facing intense public and scientific scrutiny, experimented with wildly different definitions of life science and life science education from the 1950s through the 1980s. The book concludes with a discussion of the influence that corporate sponsorship and blockbuster economics wielded over science and natural history museums in the century’s last decades.
A vivid, entertaining study of the ways science and natural history museums shaped and were shaped by understandings of science and public education in the twentieth-century United States, Life on Display will appeal to historians, sociologists, and ethnographers of American science and culture, as well as museum practitioners and general readers.         

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226079837
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/03/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 456
File size: 13 MB
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About the Author

Karen A. Rader is associate professor in the Department of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. Victoria E. M. Cain is assistant professor in the Department of History at Northeastern University.

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Life on Display

Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century

By Karen A. Rader, Victoria E. M. Cain

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07983-7


"A Vision of the Future": The New Museum Idea and Display Reform, 1890–1915

After young Russian immigrant Mary Antin visited the museum of the Boston Society of Natural History in the 1890s, she could not bring herself to return. The specimens in the museum's dim cases "failed to stir my imagination," she recalled, "and the slimy things that floated in glass vessels were too horrid for a second glance." "The exhibits were so dingy, so overcrowded and so revolting [that] recalcitrant children ... were dragged in and walked through the Natural History rooms to strike terror in their hearts," remembered zoologist Thomas Barbour. The halls of late nineteenth-century American natural history museums routinely elicited similar reactions, for they were "neither a delight to the eye of the unprofessional visitor nor a satisfaction to the specialist," wrote National Museum curator Robert Ridgway. At the museum of the Davenport Academy of Sciences, for instance, Iowans found the thousands of insects, pressed plants, arrowheads and copper axes, and animal skulls so "fearfully dull" that its galleries were almost entirely deserted, volunteer curator William Pratt confided to a friend in 1890. New York City's public schoolteachers considered the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History so incomprehensible in the 1890s that they refused to take their students to visit, believing the trip wasn't worth the effort.

Between the 1890s and the 1910s, a young generation of reformers inspired by a transnational movement known as the New Museum Idea came to believe that natural history museums could no longer ignore these audiences. Museums should, they argued, reach and teach all citizens, and display seemed the most expedient way to do so. Displays could bring a museum visitor "into direct contact with Nature, show him her infinite resources and establish between him and the outdoor world an intimacy through which he will derive not only pleasure, but also physical, mental, and spiritual strength," explained curator and museum reformer Frank Chapman in 1899. Convinced that displays could and should become powerful pedagogical tools, reformers persuaded their colleagues to reconsider the contents of museums' shelves and the configuration of their halls.

An infectiously enthusiastic faction of reformers, known in the museum world as "museum men," worked to realize exhibits' educational potential in these decades, encouraging fellow staff members to join them as they experimented with new approaches. At museums new and old, staff members rooted through collections, steadily sorting, labeling, and tossing aside specimens to compile collections that could spark interest in scientists and schoolchildren. They worked to build displays that would, in the words of the National Museum's George Brown Goode, transform museums from "a cemetery of bric-a-brac into a nursery of living thoughts." In this way, museum men succeeded in imposing new order on the nation's miscellany of natural history museums, establishing an institutional template that reformers eventually embraced, reproduced, and improved on while still hewing to a unified vision of the museum as a major force in popular education. By 1907, Brooklyn Museum curator Frederic A. Lucas could confidently declare that "the character of museums has changed so greatly ... those who know these institutions only as they exist today may not realize how widely they differ from what they were even twenty-five years ago."

This transformation was not realized without struggle. Ideals, practices, and people clashed as reformers reorganized displays and the institutions that housed them. Attempts to make room in museum halls for museumgoers' tastes, needs, and interests collided with efforts to discipline unruly collections and displays. Staff members bickered over the shape and extent of display reform, some bucking against the notion that public education merited such attention, others insisting that curators should prioritize display making over their other duties. By the mid-1910s, reformers had persuaded most staff members to rally behind their vision. The museum was not merely a place dedicated to the preservation of specimens and the production of scientific knowledge, wrote ichthyologist and director of the California Academy of Sciences Barton W. Evermann in the Popular Science Monthly in 1918. "The museum has come to regard itself, and to be regarded by the public, as an educational institution," he pronounced.

Progressive Era museum reformers' interpretation of the New Museum Idea as a mandate for public education through display would undergird professional and public ideas about the institutional role of natural history and science museums for the next hundred years. The vision they articulated would spark decades of animated arguments about display practices, pedagogical principles, and the proper place of exhibits in museums. It would not only unsettle museums' institutional cultures but would also ensure that museum displays became battlegrounds for contentious cultural debates over American science and science education in the twentieth century.

The New Museum Idea and the Museum Men

To most Americans, the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum stood first among the dozens of natural history museums scattered across the United States in the 1870s and 1880s. It was still a young institution and it was small compared to the museums that sprawled across Europe's capitals. But its size and scope awed Washington tourists and its scientific ambition staggered the nation's naturalists. Smithsonian curators hoped to assemble specimen collections that would present American scientists with a complete picture of the historical development of the globe's variegated life forms and rich natural resources. So they purchased vast compendia of natural objects from well-known European collectors and persuaded American naturalists—professional scientists, avid amateurs, and young hobbyists—to flesh out the museum's holdings with their finds. They also worked closely with federal surveyors, who sent back railroad cars of specimens as they combed the country west of the Mississippi, and dispatched professional collectors to gather the nature of other nations. Curators systematically separated and analyzed the resulting mountains of specimens, categorizing animals, plants, and minerals into groups distinguished by similar physical features or functions. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, the scientific staff of the National Museum helped map the shape and capacities of the natural world, providing ever more detailed information to governments, investors, scientists, laborers, and the reading public as they did so.

Though the National Museum officially welcomed all visitors in the early 1880s, its halls were no place for the public. Its displays, with thousands of specimens massed in glass cases (see, e.g., fig. 1), were "a perfect chaos," admitted staff ornithologist Robert Ridgway. The galleries appalled Frederic Lucas, an osteologist and taxidermist who had joined the museum's staff in 1882. Lucas had trained at Ward's Natural Science Establishment, a well-respected purveyor of natural history collections. Accustomed to Ward's exacting aesthetic standards, committed to expanding the public's understanding of the natural world, Lucas found the disorganized state of the Smithsonian's displays downright offensive. The young man was relieved to find that the museum's recently appointed assistant director, the courtly thirty-year-old George Brown Goode, felt the same way.

Goode's faith that a proper understanding of the sciences, and especially the biological sciences, could improve the lives and lots of all citizens was no particular surprise to his colleagues—natural science had been one of the great love affairs of his life, after all, and his own lot had improved immeasurably as a result of its influence. As a boy he had spent long hours roaming farmland and woodlot in Amenia, New York, paging through the Smithsonian Reports that lined his father's personal library. After a postgraduate year at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, he returned to his own alma mater, Wesleyan, to create a museum out of its scattered natural history collections. But the encounter that changed his life was meeting Smithsonian ichthyologist Spencer Baird while volunteering for the U.S. Fish Commission. Baird persuaded the twenty-two-year-old to join him at the commission and the museum, and over the next decade and a half, Goode's world widened. He collected his way through Bermuda, Florida, and Connecticut, publishing dozens of scientific treatises on the geographical distribution of fish and authoring popular volumes on game and food fishes and the state of the American fishing industry. He took charge of the Smithsonian's displays at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, becoming a curator and, eventually, assistant director of the U.S. National Museum. Thrilled by the beauty of tropical fish and concerned with the health of the nation's fisheries, Goode appreciated how scientific knowledge could illuminate individual lives and drive whole economies.

As a result, the young administrator firmly believed the National Museum had a moral duty to educate the broadest public possible about scientific concepts and applications. The needs of "the mechanic, the factory operator, the day-laborer, the salesman, and the clerk" were as important as "those of the professional man and the man of leisure," Goode reminded his curators, and the museum should be arranged accordingly. But for the museum to serve all Americans present and future, Goode suggested, it needed to advance three missions simultaneously: specimen preservation, scientific research and publication, and public education. Curators should adhere to contemporary standards of professional scientists, but they should also collect, arrange, and display specimens in ways that broader audiences would find useful and visually appealing. "The people's museum should be much more than a house full of specimens in glass cases," he wrote. Rather, "it should be a house full of ideas, arranged with the strictest attention to system ... a series of objects selected with reference to their value to investigation, or their possibilities for public enlightenment."

Goode was hardly the first to promote this vision, which contemporaries called the New Museum Idea, but he was its most vocal advocate in the United States, and he spent more than fifteen years attempting to implement its precepts at the National Museum. Goode was a genial polymath, admired by colleagues and adored by subordinates, and the National Museum's staff readily embraced his vision. They worked hard for him, following the institutional blueprint he set out early in his tenure even after his untimely death in 1896. Goode asked Smithsonian curators to look beyond their areas of specialty and broaden their collecting agendas, and under his supervision, the museum's holdings grew from 200,000 to more than three million. At Goode's direction, curators divided these collections in two, a practice known as "dual arrangement," placing choice specimens on display and reserving the rest for professional study. By 1894, the museum displayed only about one-fiftieth of its ornithological holdings in the public galleries—the rest lay in cabinets accessible only to researchers. They affixed lengthy labels to those objects on display and encouraged the museum's newer staff members to "try experiments in installation and exhibition that would not have been feasible in an older institution," Lucas affectionately recalled. "Not unnaturally some defects appeared when [Goode's] theories were put into practice." Lucas later wrote, "But the underlying principles were sound." Lucas's endorsement was an understatement: the principles Goode advocated proved sound enough to inspire a generation of museum workers to launch a reform movement that would transform the halls of American museums.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Lucas was not Goode's only disciple: a far-flung network of museum workers came to concur with Goode that, as Milwaukee Public Museum director Henry L. Ward put it, museums "owe a debt to all classes of citizens and must afford pleasure and instruction to the masses as well as means of research for the scientist." Some had been persuaded by Goode's speeches, some by his personal influence, for the Smithsonian's staff had ballooned from thirteen to two hundred during his tenure at the National Museum, and a generation of museum staff had trained at his knee. Inspired by his exhortations to make the natural history museum into "one of the principal agencies for enlightenment of the people," as he put it in an 1889 speech, they began to consider how they might adapt the reforms Goode had put in place at the National Museum to other institutions. Swept up in the democratic impulses of the Progressive Era, this determined young group of reformers joined the host of men and women in libraries, public schools, agricultural and technical colleges, and other institutions striving to make scientific information accessible, open, and free to all Americans.

Reformers championed public education in museums for reasons that ranged as widely as their job descriptions. To a certain extent, museum workers' support for new ideals and practices was a matter of professional self-interest. Curators, whose job was to tend, arrange, and study specimens, were pleased at the prospect of revamping collections and displays along lines that would command greater interest from other biological scientists. Directors, responsible for institutions' scientific and educational agendas, personnel, and finances, recognized that reforms might compel nature-loving patrons and municipal officials into funding their work. Preparators, who readied specimens for study and display, appreciated the untapped pedagogical potential of their work.

But support for museum reform did not always flow according to predictable channels. The New Museum Idea and its associated reforms accommodated all manner of interests and ideologies, so reformers' motivations for supporting museum-based public education varied considerably even within fairly narrowly defined groups. At the American Museum in the early 1900s, for instance, curators' support for museum reform spanned the political spectrum. Henry Fairfield Osborn, the museum's dominating curator of paleontology and eventual chairman, viewed the museum as an instrument of racial and social control, wielded in order to persuade potentially unruly immigrants to uphold the social status quo. Joel Allen, its venerable mammalogist, believed that conservation was the single most important reason to promote museum reform. Herpetologist Mary Cynthia Dickerson and Frank Chapman, the museum's curator of ornithology, had not only conservation but also personal liberation in mind, and they hoped to share their own deep pleasure in the natural world and broad knowledge of the biological sciences to enrich Americans' daily lives.

Though museum reformers might disagree about the whys of educating this public, most were in perfect concert about the how of it, concurring that museums could best reach and teach broad audiences through careful displays of specimen collections. This idea, so familiar nowadays that it seems inextricable from the very idea of a natural history museum, was still something of a revelation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At most museums in the 1870s and 1880s, curators arranged collections to accommodate taxonomists and systematists, whose work required them to compare hundreds of similar specimens in order to identify species and trace their evolution over space and time. The resulting masses of objects made lay visitors' eyes glaze over, but the curators responsible rarely worried about losing museumgoers' attention. Museums should not cater to those who hoped "amusement may be lavished upon him" but to those "at least willing to put forth an effort to obtain information," Minnesota's state geologist N. H. Winchell announced in 1891, and most curators agreed. As late as 1898, Carnegie Museum director William J. Holland noted his profound irritation with people who "seemed to make no serious study" of his institution's holdings. As a result of their inattentive behavior, Holland felt quite justified in devoting more of his resources to building up the scientific collections than he did to reaching flighty "younger visitors, who came frequently but seemed rather to take a general view than to make a careful inspection. Curators held that intense, even painful, concentration was prerequisite to learning from specimen displays and expected visitors to rise to the occasion.


Excerpted from Life on Display by Karen A. Rader, Victoria E. M. Cain. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Mission of Display

1 “A Vision of the Future”: The New Museum Idea and Display Reform, 1890–1915
2 The Drama of the Diorama, 1910–1935
3 Displays in Motion: Experimentation and Stagnation in Exhibition, 1925–1940
4 Diversifying Displays, Diverging Museums: Postwar Life Science Education, 1941–1956
5 “An Investment in the Future of America”: Competing Pedgogies in Post-Sputnik Museums, 1957–1969
6 The Exploratorium Effect: Redefining Relevance and Interactive Display, 1969–1980
7 From Diversity to Standardization: Edutainment and Engagement in Museums at the End of the Century, 1976–2005

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