If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums?

Charles Kingsley, in an address to workingmen, said: “You must acquire something of that industrious habit of mind which the study of natural science gives,—the art of comparing, of perceiving true likenesses and true differences, and so of classifying and arranging what you see; the art of connecting facts together in your mind in cause and effect.”

The public museum fosters the art of collecting; and of all habits to encourage, in the young and old alike, the habit of collecting is one of the best. It has been said that one who does not learn to play whist is laying up a dismal old age; the same might be said of one who has not cultivated the collector’s spirit. It induces habits of neatness, order, and skill, says one writer. Young people are kept out of mischief, to middle-aged people it is a rest and relaxation, and old people find in their collections a perennial source of pleasure.

Professor Goode quotes an eminent English lecturer as stating that our nation is deteriorating in regard to culture; that where, twenty years ago, five hundred towns supported, year after year, courses of lectures on scientific and literary subjects, to day scarcely fifty of these places feel encouraged to continue the effort. If there is no apparent reason for this decadence, then it will be well-nigh useless to hope for the establishment of museums. If, however, it can be shown that with the advent of the lecture bureau the market was flooded with poor or sensational lecturers, comic readers, etc., and as a result the lecture platform, as we formerly knew it, became converted into an amusement stage; if, furthermore, it can be shown that the magazine literature of the country gives far greater space to matters of science and art, thus providing the kinds of intellectual food formerly given from the lecture platform, then we may hope that there is no decadence in the culture of the people, and that an interest in public museums may be easily aroused.

A change has certainly taken place in the last thirty years in the tendency of the community toward collecting objects of natural history. Private collectors of shells, insects, birds, etc., were far more numerous thirty years ago than they are to-day. The same is true of England. An eminent authority laments that “private collections are failing in Liverpool and all around; and teaching is everywhere hard and hardening in its results.” Yet there is surely no dying out of the collector’s spirit in certain lines, as witness the thousands interested in postage-stamp collecting, with their established societies and periodicals.

To awaken a desire in the smaller towns for a public museum, it is needful that a good example be cited. To see examples of any kind, one must go up to the great cities to find them. For New England the fingers of one hand could almost count them, and for the rest of this great republic, outside of college museums, the fingers of the other hand would be sufficient to keep tally.

If we examine into the character of these museums, we shall find that, with some notable exceptions, they stand where they did before Darwin’s time. The museum then, as now, consisted of accumulations of species of animals that were of interest only to specialists in their respective branches of study. The interest attaching to such collections was incomprehensible to the layman. He strayed through a museum bewildered by cases filled with apparently similar kinds of shells, insects, and the like. The insects were always in their mature state. Not a suggestion of the life history of even a single species could be found. Regiments of shells were marshaled in pasteboard trays, with no inkling of the kind of life associated with them. The collection of birds gave no hint of the quaint appearance of the young, or of the infinite variety in the construction of their nests. As to whether the creatures ever laid eggs could be ascertained only by going to some other part of the hall.

The school books of the time gave no idea of the way in which these collections might be studied; and if by chance the textbook had a more thoughtful chapter on morphology or other point of view, the museum might be ransacked in vain for an illustration. If one chanced to have a general book on natural history, it told him about the elephant and the kangaroo, which he already knew by name, at least, through the lines of a popular ditty, but not a word of the little creatures that hid under his own doorstep. The museum might have a small collection of mammals, but to find a complete collection of those of his own State he would have to go to the museums of the Old World.

Within recent years a great change has taken place, in this and some other respects, in the large museums of the country, notably in Boston, Cambridge, Salem, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington; but advances are yet to be made in some of these museums to bring their collections abreast of the knowledge of to-day. Professor Goode insists that the “museum of the past must be set aside, reconstructed, transformed from a cemetery of bric-a-brac into a nursery of living thoughts.”

That the importance of a museum of some kind connected with the larger schools has been realized in the past is seen in the custom of every country academy and female seminary which sets apart a room for the purposes of a school museum. But no more ingenious device could have been planned to create a loathing for museums in the minds of the young than these wretched travesties called “cabinets of natural history.” With few exceptions they were dismal failures. The scant collections rarely contained anything belonging to the surrounding country, unless it might be a moth-eaten owl, a plethoric paper wasps’ nest, or a horseshoe crab from the nearest seacoast; clutter, dust, and disorder, and poorly executed labels, usually written with a hard lead pencil on the bluest of writing-paper, and all concealed in cases, the wood of whose doors generally exceeded the glass in superficial area. This description applies not only to the class of schools above mentioned, but to many of the large institutions of learning as well. Even to-day there are many colleges and universities that have no museums, and others that would be better off if deprived of the wretched apologies they have. A prominent Western university has a museum literally bathed in soot, the most instructive features of which are the foot-tracks of various insects delicately traced on the soot-laden shelves! I mention these facts not in a way of reproach, but to emphasize an important truth; and that is that the creating of a proper museum requires the services of one endowed with special taste and talent for the work. A man may be an excellent collector and systematist, but disorderly to the last degree. As a collector and specialist he may have made, a record; but museum work demands more than these qualifications. One must have the power of clearly illustrating truths in science by the proper and adequate display of specimens. Labels must be neatly, clearly, and concisely drawn. A hand-made label, if well done, is better than a printed one. Professor Goode, to whom we are greatly indebted for numerous essays and addresses on museum matters, has said with truth that “an efficient educational museum may be described as a collection of instructive labels, each illustrated by a well-selected specimen.”

But we anticipate. The importance of the museum as an adjunct of the public library having been indicated, the pre. Darwinian condition of many of the smaller and some of the larger museums having been shown, we come now to consider the question, What kind of a museum may properly be demanded as the working companion of a public library? Museums are almost as varied in their character as human knowledge. There are zo6logical, anatomical, botanical, mineralogical, geological, paleontological, ethnological, archeologicalmuseums; historical museums of art and armor; museums of architecture, terrestrial and marine; industrial museums; museums showing the history of a nation, such as the wonderful one at Nuremberg; museums solely to commemorate the work of great men, as the Thorwaldsen Museum at Copenhagen; museums, again, limited in scope to the last degree, as seen in the unique one at Berlin, illustrating the history and development of the postal service. Obviously, not .one of these various museums would answer to parallel the public library, but an epitome of all of them would answer the purpose completely, were it possible to bring the material together. And such an epitome is within the reach of any well-ordered community willing to spend a portion of its library endowment for such a collection.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In