If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums?

This, then, is a general idea of what a public museum should be. It has been attained in part by the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem. The collections comprise, first, a remarkable series of the animals and plants, rocks, minerals, and archaological specimens collected in the county of Essex. These collections are continually increasing as new forms are added. They occupy upright cases to an extent of over three hundred running feet, or a superficial area for their display of nearly three thousand square feet. Besides this there is an epitome collection of the animal kingdom, brought from all parts of the world, requiring an area of sixteen hundred square feet for its proper display; and finally, an ethnological collection, arranged by countries, filling a hall sixty by forty-eight feet with broad galleries and spacious cases. These collections are all fully and clearly labeled. At close intervals throughout the entire collection special colored labels are displayed, calling attention, by title and shelf number, to books in the public library referring to the immediate group; so that a student or pupil from the public schools need only transcribe on a bit of paper a set of numbers, and present it at the delivery window of the public library, to be provided at once with the books on the special subject desired. Great credit is due to Mr. Robinson, in charge of the museum, for the good taste shown in the arrangement of the collection, and to Mr. Jones, the librarian of the public library, for co operating so heartily in the work of the Academy.

Courses of lectures are given in the Academy Hall every year, which are practically free to the public. The city librarian usually supplements these lectures by printed lists of books treating of the subject matter of the lecture, and these lists are distributed to the auditors. A like service is often done for the free courses of lectures given by the Essex Institute. In this manner, these three institutions cooperate with one another in utilizing the collections in their possession in an educational way, and for the good of the general public. The collections thus made available are the results of years of devoted labor by many ardent students and collectors.

Is it to be supposed that other communities may call into existence even a limited collection of objects for a museum, as they might bring together the material for a public library? With any reasonable appropriation of money this can be done. At the present time, there are many reputable firms which stand ready to furnish, at reasonable prices, collections representing the various departments of science. All the mechanical features of a museum, such as cases, adjustable brackets, tablets, insect boxes, jars, etc., can be got from the proper sources. If a public library has its salaried officer and assistants, and buys its books, why should not a public museum be installed under precisely similar conditions? There is no reason, save the fact that most of the museums in the country have had a fortuitous beginning, usually due to a coterie of men directly interested in science, who, bringing together collections of interest, have been generous enough to permit the public to enjoy them on certain days in the year. In some cases, a large endowment has enabled the society to share its treasures with the public more freely.

But we are digressing. With the facilities thus indicated for purchasing material, a definite plan is to be laid out, upon which the collections are to be brought together. An epitome collection of the animal kingdom, large or small as the case may be, is to be secured. This will come to hand properly prepared, mounted, and labeled. Having obtained this, the museum has the models upon which to prepare the local collection. Home talent will have to be looked to for this material; and if none are found competent to do the work, a collector from elsewhere must be employed for the purpose. The initial steps having been taken, the lines are indicated along which it is possible to utilize the voluntary aid of such collectors as the community may possess, although the museum of to-day cannot depend upon voluntary service entirely. Special private collections of shells, insects, minerals, archeological relics, etc., will naturally gravitate toward the public museum, either by gift or by purchase; and thus, slowly but surely, the foundations of a museum will have been fairly started. Finally, in the museum of the future the errors of the past should be avoided. Private collections, when given to a museum, must be incorporated with the other collections. Collections should not be accepted with the condition that they are to have separate rooms or cases for their display. There are occasions when an exception can be made; as when, for instance, the collection is far more complete than the one already possessed, though in this case the smaller collection should be merged with the larger. An inconvenience has always arisen from the continual accession of material which necessitates the rearranging of collections for their admission. This difficulty can be overcome by setting apart a special room or a set of cases, in which the donations can be kept for one year, this receptacle to be plainly marked “New Accessions to the Museum.” In this way a rearrangement, and consequent disturbance, takes place only once a year. Furthermore, the exhibition of these accessions separately will stimulate the activity and pride of local collectors and others interested. Above all, the bane and misery of dubious accumulations should be avoided.

A specimen is either of use, or it is not. If worthy of preservation, it should find its place in the collections; if not, it should be transferred to those who will make use of it, or be destroyed. The rubbish which accumulates in many of our museums, and is hoarded from year to year with the hope that it may some time be of use, is paralleled by the collections of junk with which some are inclined to encumber their premises. That some kind of a public museum, along the lines and in the ways above suggested, is possible for smaller towns there is no doubt. A wholesome spirit of rivalry might naturally arise, and each town having its museum would excel in certain departments, in the same way that each town can pride itself on certain special features, such as a fine park, spacious town hall, public library, or superior high-school building. Unfortunate, indeed, is that town—and there are hundreds of them in this country—that can show nothing but the mere elements of material existence; in this respect not a whit removed from the barrenness of a sheep pasture. To bring up young children in such a town is to stunt their intellectual powers; and to narrow persistently the horizon of their life.

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