If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums?

Thomas Greenwood, of England, in his work already alluded to, summarizes the main objects of a public museum as follows: first, that it provide rational amusement of an elevating character to the ordinary visitor; second, that it be in the fullest sense an educational institution, easily accessible to all classes; third, that it provide a home for examples of local objects of interest of an antiquarian, geological, or other character; fourth, that a section of it be a commercial museum, containing specimens of manufactures resembling those produced in the immediate locality; fifth, that it be one in a series of institutions whose object shall be to further the education of the many and the special studies of the few. The section that Mr. Greenwood devotes to a commercial museum would be far better devoted to objects of art. The commercial products of a community are always accessible, and every recurring state or county fair makes full display of the material, with the machinery and men producing it in full operation.

In a committee’s report made to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, upon the Provincial Museums of the United Kingdom, it is stated : —

“The special objects of a free rate-supported museum in a provincial town should be : —

“(1.) To contribute its share to the general scientific statistics of the country by collecting and preserving specimens of the natural and artificial productions of the district in which it is situated.

“(2.) To procure such other specimens as may be desirable for illustrating the general principles of science, and the relations of the locality to the rest of the world.

“(3.) To receive and preserve local collections or single specimens having any scientific value which the possessors may desire to devote to public use.

“(4.) So to arrange and display the specimens collected as to afford the greatest amount of popular instruction consistent with their safe preservation and accessibility as objects of scientific study.

“(5.) To render special assistance to local students and teachers of science.” F. T. Mott, Esq., a member of the above-mentioned committee, in a paper read before the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, on the Development of Museums as Public Educators, says —

“Museums, free libraries, and art galleries have this in common: that they are each expected to fulfill two purposes which are somewhat incongruous, and require to be pursued by different methods and with different appliances. Each of these institutions is expected to minister to the wants both of trained students and of the untrained and ignorant public; and the demands of these two classes of persons are so diverse that they must be provided for separately. The free library must have its lending department for the general public, and its reference department for students. The art gallery must have attractive and interesting pictures for ordinary visitors, but it must also have masterly studies for the instruction of young artists. The museum, however, has a still more complex and difficult part to play. It has not only to provide for the diverse wants of students and of visitors, but it has also to contribute to the general progress of scientific knowledge. Every museum, at least every provincial rate-supported museum, which is a public and in some sense a national institution, has a threefold duty: (1) to the nation at large, (2) to the students of the neighborhood, and (3) to the local public. If museums are ever to be more than a confused compound of the curiosity shop and the peep-show, which is what very many of them are at present, this threefold duty must be very clearly recognized, and means must be found for the efficient carrying on of each department.”

First and foremost, then, the town museum should illustrate the natural products of the immediate region. By natural products is meant, of course, the animals, plants, rocks, and minerals found in the county, or possibly in the State; for a county collection would require but a few extra-limital forms to compass the State. Second, a general collection of similar material from elsewhere, to show the relation of the county to the rest of the world. Anatomical, physiological, and morphological series should next find place in such a museum. The minor factors of natural selection, such as protective, alluring, and warning coloration, mimicry, etc., should be illustrated, as far as possible, from collections made in the immediate neighborhood. And finally, a series of forms to show the phylogenetic development of the animal kingdom should in some way be given. Such a series would require large floor space, and the solution of many perplexing problems as to form of cases and methods of display.

Yet a scheme of this sort must ultimately be devised. The importance of developmental series is clearly brought out by a comparison between the famous Cluny Museum in Paris and the University Museum at Oxford under the charge of Professor E. B. Tylor. In the former is a homogeneous mass of beautiful and elaborate objects of medievaltimes, each exciting thought so disjointed that fatigue soon ensues from the rich surfeit, and one comes away with the feeling that he has seen a marvelous lot of most exquisite objects in the dim light of an artistic receptacle. Not an emotion has been evoked that will be set vibrating again unless he drops into a choice bric-a-brac shop, and the medley there seen pleases him less in its ensemble than that of the Cluny collections; with the advantage, however, that he can buy, if he has the means, and not burn with envy. The Pitt-Rivers collection now displayed in the Oxford Museum arrests the thoughtful attention at every step; inquiry is provoked at every turn; doubt may be engendered, yet ever after one finds fertile subjects to think about, to discuss, or to impart to one’s friends. In other words, the collection has stimulated inquiry; and this is what a properly arranged collection should always do.

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