If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums?

THE success which has accompanied the Public Library Act in Massachusetts encourages the friends of science to believe that the time is propitious for establishing public museums in the smaller towns of the Commonwealth. It certainly is time to direct public attention to the importance of the museum as an adjunct to the public library. The tendencies of modern public-school education which introduce Sloyd as part of its work, and ask for pictures and casts to decorate the barren walls of the schoolroom, are indications that the time is ripe to found, in a modest way, museums of science, art, and history in our smaller towns and villages. A few devoted students have, in past times, endeavored to establish institutions of this kind, but in most instances their efforts have been abortive. A few larger cities in the country have managed to keep alive the interest manifested, and their museums are now permanently established. The failures, however, have outnumbered the successes ten to one, and for this there must be a reason.

The founding of a museum is far more difficult than that of a library. People are trained to the latter in the development of a private library: any one capable of cataloguing books can establish a small library. The furniture is reduced to the simplest expression in the form of a case of shelves. The material to be put upon them can readily be ordered from the nearest book mart. On the other hand, the building of a museum requires special gifts and special training. Besides, one thoroughly imbued with the spirit of a collector should have charge of a museum, though this is equally true in regard to libraries of any magnitude. The absence of a public demand for museums in the past has arisen from the methods of public instruction. Lessons from books, and not from nature, have been the tiresome lot of school children. Questions and answers, cut and dried, have tended to deaden the inquiring spirit. That portion of a child’s brain which is involved in observation has been reduced to atrophy by the usual public-school methods. A distinguished English authority suggests to school boards, high and low, “that the teaching is out of all proportion in excess of the training, the latter being with difficulty weighed in the scales of school examination.” Agassiz said: “The pupil studies Nature in the schoolroom, and when he goes out of doors he cannot find her.” I shall never forget the bitter disappointment I felt as a boy, on my first journey, when the stage driver pointed out to me with his whip the dividing line between the States of Maine and New Hampshire. There was no colored line! There was no change in the color surfaces of the two sides! I felt grieved and rebellious at the imposition which had been practiced upon me. Nor can I ever forget the surprise—my delight was distracted by the novelty of my ignorance—when my father, in one of the periodic family drives, chanced to remark, on a shore road near Portland, that the water expanse before us was the Atlantic Ocean. Had he said that one of the islands in sight was Madagascar, I should not have been more astonished. Every one can recall experiences of a similar nature, and I venture to believe that these two truthful incidents are pertinent examples of the results of pernicious educational methods universal forty years ago, and by no means uncommon to-day,—book-cramming, with no reference to the objects or illustrations in sight from the windows, or within stone’s throw of the school door. This undeniable condition of many schools in the land emphasizes the necessity of museums where the objects may verify some of the lessons learned at school. The book method of education has almost paralyzed public desire for museums, and the result has been that the museum, when instituted, has been in the interest of specialists, and mainly through their efforts. The whole animal kingdom may be epitomized, in a manner, between the covers of a single book; the specimens properly to illustrate such a book would require a good-sized hall in which to be displayed.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has liberally provided a way in which every town may have a collection of books free to all. So successfully has the enactment been carried out that only three per cent of the State’s population is unprovided with a free public library, and this remnant will soon be favored with its public stock of standard books. This is all very well, and in the right direction; but is it not possible to create a similar public sentiment for the establishment of some kind of a museum, as a proper accompaniment of the library? If there is the slightest necessity for a museum in the crowded metropolis, why does not the same necessity hold good for the small town or village? In the Public Libraries Act of England and Ireland (1855), provision is made for the erection of buildings “suitable for public libraries or museums, or both, or for schools of science and art;” and a similar act for Scotland (1867) provides for the erection of buildings “suitable for public libraries, art galleries, or museums, or each respectively.” Every community, borough, district, or parish exceeding five thousand in population may, by a two-thirds majority, adopt the Public Libraries Act, and a sum not exceeding a penny in a pound may be levied for carrying out the provisions of the act.

Thomas Greenwood, the author of a special work on museums and art galleries, expresses his belief that “the museum of the future must stand side by side with the library and the laboratory, as a part of the teaching equipment of the college and the university, and in the great cities cooperate with the public library as one of the principal agencies for the enlightenment of the people.” Professor Goode, the director of the United States National Museum, says: “I am confident also that a museum, wisely organized and properly arranged, is certain to benefit the library near which it stands in many ways through its power to stimulate interest in books, thus increasing the general popularity of the library and enlarging its endowment.” England discovered that art schools were not sufficient to place her art manufactures on a level with those of her Continental competitors, and was forced to supplement her schools with museums of art hand-work, and the large endowment granted the South Kensington Museum was fully justified by the results shown in the great exhibition of 1867. A museum seems as much an integral part of the public library as are the experiments part of a lecture on chemistry or physics. If the public library is established primarily for educational purposes, surely the public museum should come in the same category. The potency. of an object in conveying information beyond all pages of description is seen in the fact that in the museum a simple label associated with a veritable object is often sufficient to tell the story at a glance; the eye seizes the essentials at once.

The rapid development of the modern arts of illustration, and the conspicuous use of these methods in books, magazines, dictionaries, and even the daily papers, attest the power of the pictorial art, barbarous as it is in many cases, in imparting information quickly and clear ly. If illustrations are so important in the modern publication,—and to do with-out them would seem well-nigh impossible,—how far more important it would seem to be to provide an exhibition of the objects themselves in science, art, and history, to which the public might have free access!

A museum adds dignity to a trifle. What seems a worthless object to the minds of the multitude becomes at once endowed with interest when carefully framed or mounted, and clearly labeled. Furthermore, the object is seen to have a definite relation to other equally common objects with which it is associated; a lesson is learned, and sooner or later the observer finds an added interest in his studies, if indeed he is not aware for the first time of regions of thought utterly unknown to him before. The charm that attends the demonstration of the minor factors of natural selection comes from the love of causality,—a desire which, as Pesehel truly says, accounts for the intellectual supremacy of Europe over the great Asiatic nations lying east of her.

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