Museums in a Changing World


IF the term ‘museum’ strikes terror to the heart of the average layman, it is as nothing compared with the sense of panic which its sound produces in the poor innocents who spend their lives rationalizing its very existence. Going back into the far reaches of time, the word ‘museum’ has succeeded in meaning nothing vital to anyone in particular, yet at the same time it has strangely meant all things to all men. It has emerged through a metamorphic process lasting many centuries from the simple designation of a temple of the Muse to be the encompassing catch-basin for all those disparate elements of hereditary culture which are not yet woven into the general educational fabric of modern society. And, since education has been defined as ‘the art of casting artificial pearls before real swine,’ it is only natural that museum workers should have concerned themselves with the elaborate furnishing of the trough at the expense of the digestive capacity of the feeders.

Museums came into being at a very early date. There are records of Egyptian kings who formed collections of votive offerings to placate the gods. Rameses II was the proprietor of a large library of papyri at Thebes, above the entrance of which was carved the hieroglyphic inscription ‘A Place of Healing for the Soul.’ Centuries later, at the lower end of the Nile Ptolemy Soter founded the Great Museum of Alexandria, the fountainhead of later humanistic study. This was not a museum of sterile objects in the modern sense, nor yet a temple, but rather a Platonic grove or academy in which were gathered about the famous library the leading intellects of the day.

The rôle of the collector in the ancient world is steeped in legendary speculation and colored with political oratory. The idea of a public collection, or in fact any collection at all, was unknown to the early Greeks, whose creative impulses were so well balanced, and whose spiritual contentment and harmony so complete, that they were never conscious of the intellectual processes involved in the creation of a work of art itself. Beauty, to the Greek of classic times, was an accepted fact, and, paradoxically, he despised the factors that produced it. Socrates, originally a sculptor, gave up the calling as low and ignoble, and in Plato’s Republic the artist was looked upon as the lowest order of citizen. He was considered a common laborer or decorator. Since the Greeks, therefore, had no opinion of art and even fewer theories, they obviously could not become collectors. For the collector is first and last a theorist of taste upon whose acceptance or rejection of fashionable judgments the art market fluctuates, up or down, with startling inconstancy. The work of art remained, then, until the time of Alexander, either an oblation to the gods or part of the public wealth to be guarded in the treasury of the temple and reckoned in terms of its monetary or material value. So little, in fact, were the productions of the artist estimated for their own worth that when the citadel of Athens was destroyed in 480 B. c., by the Persians, the Greeks used the fallen statues to fill in the soil for rebuilding the temples.

As the overexpanded empire of Alexander the Great crumbled of its own weight and succumbed to oriental influences, there developed a nostalgia for the purity of Athenian civilization. The Hellenistic monarchs of the Near East began to collect systematically and reverently the ruins and fragments of the classic age, and one may well say that the true fathers of European collecting were Attalus and Eumenes II, kings of Pergamum, who were outrivaled only by the reigning houses of Antioch and Alexandria.

Collecting, both public and private, came into its own with the prosperity of the Roman Empire. It was incumbent upon every citizen of rank to be a collector. An entire quarter of Rome was devoted to art dealers and galleries, much like Bond Street today or the rue de la Boétie. Latin literature is filled with the exploits of art dealers, of their forgeries and swindles, of their ennoblement, — a practice not altogether foreign to us now, — and of the fantastic auctions of Caligula, who forced his retinue to bid against each other for the fruits of his military plunder. Cicero fulminated against the rapaciousness of Cæsar and Sulla in stripping the colonies of their artistic wealth, and in his famous prosecution of Verres, the Proconsul of Sicily, there are passages that would do credit to the Senatorial Committee which recently pilloried Mr. Andrew Mellon.


The Middle Ages open another vista in the retrospect of this ‘ squirrel instinct ‘ of mankind. Collecting continued, but for another purpose. As the lamp of classic learning flickered out in the dark night of barbarism, the Church became at once the symbol and repository for our intellectual heritage. Yet the number of objects preserved in the collections of the mediæval palace or cathedral treasury are negligible. They were the occasional gifts of visiting sovereigns, or conscience tributes paid to patron saints in expiation of accomplished or anticipated sin. It was in the monastery alone that the work of art was estimated for its own sake. Whether in regard to the illumination of a sacred text or the intricacy of a gold-enameled reliquary, there were an appreciation and a connoisseurship displayed by such prelates as the Abbé Suger of Saint-Denis or Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim that might humble the most impeccable curator of the present day.

But to understand the formation of the great Renaissance collections, and their implications for those of us who have to show them and dust them off, it is necessary to digress into the distinction between the humanism of Italy and that of the graver nations of the North. For in this distinction lie the differences of viewpoint that in later centuries were to segregate the museums of art from similar institutions of history and science.

Whereas in western and northern Europe the Dark Ages had pretty well overwhelmed the earlier Græco-Roman civilization with a pall of ignorance, in Italy the constant survival of antiquity in ruins, language, and daily traditions reflected itself in an almost unbroken stream of memories. The persistence of pagan customs, particularly as applied to the classical conception of glory, was manifested in the cities, where monuments to ancient poets were erected, such as that to Vergil in Mantua, the Pliny monument in Como, or that to Ovid in Sulmona. Even in the lovely fountain, the Fonte Gaia, facing the Palazzo Publico in Siena, there was incorporated a statue traditionally attributed to Lysippus. Throughout the cinquecento, collections of antiquities were gathered together either to furnish formal academies of art, as in the case of the Medici Gardens, or as the properties of artists’ studios. The ateliers of Bertoldo, the master of Michelangelo, and of the Squarcione in Padua, were rich in fragments of the past. Donatello made constant studies from the antique, while Lodovico Gonzaga, Bishop of Mantua, formed a collection of plaster casts probably no better than those which are gathering grime in the basements of our museums. And as early, even, as the reign of Pope Leo X, temporary exhibitions of works of art were frequently held in Rome.

This activity, far more enlightened in many ways than the frenzied exhibitionism of our own day, must find its explanation in the character of Italian humanism. For, as Professor Hulme has so well said, this movement ‘devoted itself to the study of classical records and imitated classical modes of thought for the purposes of recapturing and developing the scientific method of observation and experiment, of obtaining a more complete and accurate knowledge of the world of nature and of men, of perfecting literary style and of increasing the appreciation of beauty. All of these things were to help the individual to think, to act and to will for himself, in opposition, if need be, to any external tradition, authority, or precedent. They were to help him to love the world as his home; to regard it no longer as a place of exile to be despised in anticipation of a life to come, but daily to win it anew by means of the recently aroused personal faculties. They were not intended to produce a general social or religious regeneration. Culture, it was believed, would relieve the individual from the pressure of external authority, would result in intellectual emancipation, and would thus give free rein to the pursuit of individual inclinations and desires.’

The Italian, then, very much like ourselves, was living for the pleasures of this world, having only a slight concern for religion or ethics. He admired art for its own sake, and, more than that, he accepted it as part of the life of the Forum which he lived. Just as Italian aristocracy has never been able to divorce itself from its origins and surroundings, the art of that country has ever sought to reconcile the human with the humanistic. Were it not for the advances in this regard, the æsthetic progress of Europe during the past four centuries would scarcely have been possible. For from this point of view the art gallery of today was born — even to the extent of bringing into common use the very Italian word galleria to designate its purpose.

The scientific museum, on the other hand, is the product of a curiosity and literalness that are purely Teutonic, and it grew out of the hereditary accumulations of the petty German rulers. These collections, like the humanism of the north, were more concerned with the dawn of science and social regeneration than with beauty. The intellectual movements here were essentially religious, and developed a rational spirit of inquiry which helped, in many ways, to bring about the Reformation. The collections themselves comprised gifts of all sorts, sea shells, fossils, stuffed alligators, minerals, works of gold, silver, and glass, as well as a hodgepodge of painting and statuary. The Archduke Albrecht of Bavaria possessed, for example, 3407 objects which included, in addition to 780 paintings, ‘an egg which an abbott had found within another egg; manna which fell from Heaven in a famine; a stuffed elephant, a hydra and a basilisk.’ The Elector of Saxony, Augustus I, was possibly more fortunate, for his collection included ‘a series of portraits of Roman Emperors from Cæsar to Domitian, said to be copies of originals done by Titian from the life.’ To this very remarkable array were added in 1611 a unicorn and a phœnix which were presented to him by the Bishop of Bamberg. Even as late as our own times Mark Twain records that it was possible to see in the sacristy of Cologne Cathedral the skull of a child in an elaborate reliquary, labeled ‘Head of Saint John the Baptist at the age of twelve years.’

These objects were gathered together into what was known as the Wunderkammer. Julius von Schlosser has shown that the differences in temperament between the north and south are inherent in the conflicting meanings of these two words, Wunderkammer (wonder chamber) and galleria (the formal gallery). Moreover, the German passion for classification and spinning a priori theories from artificially established premises had already begun to assert itself at a very early date. It set a standard for unintelligibility which has remained in vogue until the present, day, and which has done more to keep the public out of our museums than any regulations issued by trustees or governmental bureaucracies have ever succeeded in doing.

To be sure, later scholarship has examined the validity of the claims made in the early inventories of these cabinets. The ponderous Jahrbücher of the various German academies for art. and science contain polemics for and against these extravagances of princely accretion. Among their number, aspiring doctors have found an inexhaustible mine from which to draw in order to practise the art of learning more and more about less and less. There is a. strange irony in the fact that the art galleries in this country, which are being filled with works of art originally admired, commissioned, and collected by the brilliant open-minded humanists of the Italian Renaissance, are being made more and more a battleground for the conflicting attributions of iconography and authorship of scholars trained for generations in the Germanic tradition of knowing everything about a work of art without understanding its essential significance.

Space does not permit us to dwell longer on the history of museums or of private collections. Suffice it to say that by the end of the sixteenth century the die was cast and the future pathway of museum development clearly marked. Political factors, furthermore, were to determine the successive steps by which this path was to be followed. For, as the economic crises of the seventeenth century made it necessary for the High Renaissance collectors — princes, dukes, merchants, and cardinals —to dispose of their treasures, nationalism and the conception of the absolute monarchy brought about another use to which these collections could be put. The Hapsburgs in Austria, the Netherlands, and Spain found themselves in open competition with the English Stuarts and the Bourbons. It was obligatory for the Roi Soleil not only to shine in his own brilliance, but to reflect again his authority in the accumulations of the wonders of the past. This was the philosophy of collecting until the French Revolution, when the idea of the public institution — virtually the only one we know today came into being.


The American museum is the child of nineteenth-century liberal thought, and this fact should never be forgotten. For even the very idea of the public museum was in its infancy when the colonies rebelled. The British Museum was barely twenty years old, nor was the Louvre to be opened to others than academicians and a favored few until the first Napoleon. The National Gallery in London, looked upon by most Americans as the promised land of all art galleries, was formed only in 1824, although there had been agitation in the House of Commons nearly half a century earlier. The Prado was of approximately the same period. Curiously enough, the Vatican had opened its collections to the populace ahead of any of the more liberal states of Europe.

Throughout the nineteenth century the movement in favor of the great publie institution grew. It was good politics as well as good economy to convert empty palaces into places of education and recreation, and not only to permit the public to become proud of their history, but to acquaint them with their national wealth. The tourist trade, which probably had learned its most unpleasant habits in gouging the pilgrims along the mediæval trade routes, thrived with this new field for exploitation. But, taken by and large, the sudden interest which the nineteenth century had awakened in the new scientific approach to history was a factor more responsible than any other. It was a movement which grew too rapidly to be thought out. Literally tons of works of art nationalized by gift, purchase, excavation, sequestration, and other forms of governmental expediency, flooded into the cities and palaces of Europe in a neverending stream. Not until nearly 1900 did the Germans, again producing the national rabbit out of the international hat, point the way to the classification and digestion of this embarras de richesse.

The earliest collections on this continent were of the most modest order: family portraits, furniture, and silver which had emigrated from abroad with the more substantial families. As the colonists prospered in the eighteenth century, the gentleman’s ‘curio cabinet’ became more fashionable and reflected the leisured indifference to any serious interest in art so characteristic of the upper middle class in England. About 1800, however, after the dispersal of the Orleans collection in London, America became a new world for the merchant to conquer. Shipload after shipload of works of art arrived in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston and were sold to the more prosperous gentry. Many of these pictures were from the collections of French aristocrats who were beginning to return to France to salvage what was left from the Revolution. Curiously, too, in the financial panic of Andrew Jackson s administration many of these works of art, now in the leading galleries of Europe, were taken back across the sea.

The forties and fifties were rather barren years. It is prophetic, perhaps, that the foundations of American museums in general, and of the American Museum of Natural History in particular, were laid by Charles Willson Peale, who in the early part of the century had opened his museum in Independence Hall, and by the late P. T. Barnum of circus fame. His popular dictum, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute,’ has been the motto of our profession ever since. Although there had been institutions for cultural progress founded in every city, and exhibition societies for contemporary art at which voices like those of Thomas J. Bryan, who gave his collection to the New York Historical Society in 1867, and James Jackson Jarves of the Yale ‘primitives’ were crying in the wilderness, it was not until after the Civil War that America became conscious of her manifest destiny and demanded a share of the artistic treasures of history.

Much has been written for and against the American craving for sweetness and light. But had not the people of our country three generations ago implicitly believed that ‘man, being essentially a rational creature capable of continuous improvement, needed only education and political equality to make him virtuous and happy,’ there would probably be no Museum Association, no museums, and none of us connected with the museums would have any jobs. And some of our foreign colleagues would be spared the pain of telling us, in the words of Laurence Sterne, that ‘they order this matter better in France.’

Here, I believe, is the crux of our inability to meet our public on their own terms. The American museum is, after all, not an abandoned European palace, a solution for storing and classifying the accumulated national wealth of the past, but an American phenomenon, developed by the people, for the people, and of the people. This is not Fascism — it is simple American history; and our most important contributions during the past seventy-five years have been made when we have recalled this fact to our consciousness. It is significant that in the original program of the organizing committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dated January 4, 1870, it was stated that the purpose of the association was to afford ‘to our whole people free and ample means for innocent and refined enjoyment, and also supplying the best facilities for practical instruction and for the cultivation of pure taste in all matters connected with the arts.’

Quaint as these words may sound to our jaded ears, the fundamental philosophy of American art museums has never been better expressed. How far have we lived up to it? Looking back over the growth of the public institution, as briefly outlined in these pages, does it not appear to us that we, of all the peoples of history, have had a better, more natural, and less prejudiced opportunity to make the museum mean something to the general public? I think we have, and that we have thrown this opportunity away. We have placed art, for which there is a ravenous appetite in this country, both literally and figuratively, on pedestals beyond the reach of the man in the street. He believes in the museum, yes, but with the same ‘I’m from Missouri’ acquiescence with which he believes in the Constitution or the Republican Party. He votes appropriations for its support. He might even visit the museum on occasion, but he certainly takes from it little or nothing of what it might potentially offer him. This is nobody’s fault but our own. Instead of trying to interpret our contents, we have deliberately high-hatted him and called it scholarship. We have established a jargon of purity and arbitrary definition, employing words of common parlance such as ‘form,’ ‘color,’ ‘design,’ in an esoteric sense that makes him feel awkward when he realizes that he has no idea what we are talking about. We tell him that understanding must come from experience, and that the nude really is descending the staircase whether he sees it or not. We have wrapped him up in a cocoon of verbiage and cut-rate æstheticism that is insulting to any reasonable intelligence, and then we curse him for a barbarian when he says that ‘he knows what he likes.’

We have reached a critical period in American museums, as anyone confronted with a budget can tell too plainly. It is impossible for us to continue as we have done in the past. The public is no longer impressed with the museums and is frankly bored with their inability to serve it. The people have had their bellyful of prestige and pink Tennessee marble. Furthermore, they resent the spending of vast sums of tax-levied or tax-exempted funds for the interest and pleasure of an initiated few. We must stop imitating the Louvre and the Kaiser Friedrich and solve this purely American problem in a purely American way. The constant pressure of social service has so complicated our future that we can no longer sit down in super-graduate seminars to gather notes in preparation for our next research trip to Europe. Nor can we serve the public any better by joining the chorus boys of surrealism in singing ‘My Heart Belongs to Dada. We must put an end to charlatanry and come to grips with the real problems of our profession. What are museums? What shall they be? How do they differ from the university? What functions shall they perform? What relationship should they bear to the public library? Shall museums continue to accept without question all the various secularized activities which a generation ago were lodged in the parish house? What shall be their role in the steadily increasing movement of leisure time?

To study these various questions the Council of the American Association of Museums last year created a Committee on Education whose membership has been selected geographically from the fields of art, history, and science. The scope and purposes of our investigations are fundamental, and we are considering museum education primarily as an intellectual problem in its widest social sense. Then, and only then, can we begin to discuss its practical applications. The committee is now at work collecting data for this purpose.

We have, fortunately, a great mass of statistical information collected by various persons on this project. We know fairly well what is being done in almost every institution in the United States, and we know nearly as much about how it is done. But the one question which the museum world has successfully and deliberately evaded in the past twentyfive years is why is it done?

The reasons for this evasiveness are deeply rooted, I believe, in the financial history of American institutions. While Mr. Henry W. Kent, the pioneer of museum education in the fine arts, had an original philosophy when the department of the Metropolitan Museum was founded shortly after 1900, that philosophy was quickly lost in the problem of how to increase attendance, build up supporting memberships, and get more money from trustees and city councils. And it has become the hallowed practice among all institutions to permit the educational department to be the legitimate tail to wag the rest of the dog. Thus, having paid a certain half-hearted tribute to the public welfare, they could turn to the more exciting pleasures of collecting and exposition.

Another factor which has hindered the proper analytical evaluation of museum education has been the complacency of trustees, coupled with the precious vanity of curators who look down from their Olympian world of make-believe upon the teaching staff with a contempt that is as ill-disguised as it is ill-deserved. Curators are sui generis. Sometimes men and women of genius, they are more often disappointed artists and laboratory scientists, without any vocational conviction, who are attracted to a closetdrama existence. Being usually men of the world, they are more frequented by the trustees, fill in conveniently at dinner parties, and, by the very nature of their tasks, are more likely to ‘make the front page.’ (In most newspapers the daily lectures are listed, if at all, with the death notices.) Furthermore, it is from this curatorial class that the directors are recruited. Try as they will to understand the administrative problems of museum education, they are seldom able to cast off their early prejudices, and either neglect the department entirely or turn it into a three-ring circus for public support.


No sensible person can quarrel with the aims and purposes of scholarship and scientific research. This is a necessary branch of all museum activity. It does and should continue to set the standards of perfection towards which all of us should constantly strive. But, just as in the university a balance must be maintained between the graduate seminar and undergraduate teaching, so in the public institution for adult education it is no less necessary to equalize the pressure of these two related pedagogic functions. It is a curious fact that in the art museum, where it is possible to create this harmony far more easily and succinctly than in the classroom, the tendency has been to widen the existing breach still further. But it is absurd for this situation to exist, because, properly considered, every activity of an art gallery is essentially educative. Every acquisition, if its quality is high, is not merely a valuable document of factual history, but also a mirror in which is reflected some important humanistic observation or truth. And, since in all things the quality of greatness lies in simplicity, the importance of a collection is measured not by the multiplicity of its contents, but rather by the telling properties of its finest pieces. The rest soon falls into the category of reference material.

Now for years we have made no segregation of the best from the second-best that is comprehensible to the layman. We have shown him the two side by side and lectured to him, telling him arbitrarily what is good and what is bad. We have developed a cult of ‘quality for quality’s sake,’ which we preach in the same romantic phrases with which our grandfathers advocated ‘art for art’s sake.’ We ask our public to accept the sample of an art of, let us say, the Gothic period — a single statue — with the same ready understanding of a Frenchman who was born beneath the shadow of a great cathedral. And wTe make little or no effort to furnish him a synthetic world view. If he feels art is important, he rarely knows the reason why.

The science museums, on the other hand, have already begun to show the way to remedy this state of affairs and have, in fact, indicated the rôle of the museum of the future. They have been aided in this respect by the depression. For, while we in the art galleries have been squeezing every penny to buy the treasures of European collections in a rapidly falling market, the scientific and industrial institutions have put their money into reinstallation and interpretative exposition. They have not been above employing all of the mechanical aids to learning which are at hand and have pursued the possibilities of new techniques with tireless energy. In brief, they have at last come to a willingness to contemplate their resources in the light of their potential usefulness to society.

We have traveled very far in the past few pages. My purpose in taking you back through the centuries wars to show that public institutions of the type we represent were not an artificial creation but the product of a long organic growth.

Each generation has been obliged to interpret this vague word ‘ museum ‘ according to the social requirements of its day. There are no rules which apply and no restrictions which limit our field of activity beyond common sense and intellectual integrity. It is no longer necessary for us to do lip service to the institutions of a worn-out and defeated Europe. We must consider our responsibilities in terms of twentieth-century America. Perhaps we may develop a totally new type of public institution bearing little or no relation to the nationalized palaces of the Renaissance. So much the better. But before we do we must find an articulate expression of the content of public museum education.

This is not the job of the docent alone. It is a challenge to every member of the staff. No matter how great the sacrifice to our personal interests and ambitions, we must turn aside from the battle of the books and leave the more refined delights of art history to our colleagues in the university. And, in the field of buying, we must consider once more the public for whom we hold these funds in trust. For, flattering as it may be to the ego of the impecunious curator to compete with other people’s money against private collectors of unlimited means and still greater caprice, we are too often serving only the art dealers in supporting a market whose collapse has long been overdue.

As a profession we stand indicted before the court of public opinion. How can we best acquit ourselves? By honestly contemplating and interpreting our resources in the light of their potential usefulness to society, and by reconciling the layman and the scholar — therein lies our only hope for survival in the modern world. For, had our colleagues in Germany and Italy been willing to meet the man in the street halfway, they might not now be reduced to pimping for ideologies that destroy the very civilization whose finest flowerings we are dedicated to preserve.

  1. The substance of this paper was given as an address before the American Association of Museums in San Francisco, June 26, 1939.