In recent months, we've shined a spotlight on some astounding and enthralling technological artifacts in American history, from the world's first artificial heart to a collection of pioneering automobiles. But we wouldn't be able to examine these wonders without the Smithsonian, which has poured millions of dollars and man-hours into the research, restoration, and preservation of these pieces.
But public museums like the Smithsonian were never a self-evident feature of the American idea. While the public had its institutions of historical knowledge -- such as the Albany Institute of History & Art, founded in 1791 and dedicated to "collecting, preserving, interpreting and promoting interest in the history, art and culture" -- the vast majority of extensive collections of art or eclectic gadgetry remained private until the middle of the 19th century. Even then, writers and historians had to make the case for the federal government to support the development of public museums.
In the pages of the July 1875 issue of The Atlantic, zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse -- he went on to become director of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in Salem, Massachusetts -- argued for the indispensability of museums in fostering the growth of scientific knowledge and curiosity in America.
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.
Read the rest of Morse's "If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums?"
Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.