Museum Histories

Samuel J. Redman is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums and Historical Research in Archives: A Practical Guide.

It’s a dramatic story, really. At virtually the same moment in history Europeans are able to travel and communicate much longer distances—enabling them to collect cultural artifacts like never before—newly emergent cities across the United States and Europe built massive new civic museums. These grand new museums, perhaps predictably, beckoned to be filled with those things collected from around the globe. Appearing in places like Chicago, Amsterdam, New York, Berlin, Philadelphia and even, after some time, places like Jakarta, new museums (and their expanding collections) frequently became a point of pride for cities and their boosters. Museums in the United States and Europe rapidly expanded, competing for the biggest, best, most unique artifacts. Growing to include millions of objects—including human remains, culturally and spiritually sensitive objects, and important genealogical information for indigenous people today—these museums became, for a time, among the most important cultural centers worldwide. This list highlights some of the most important and interesting books exploring how these museums grew to have many of the most important anthropological collections on the planet. It also touches on how Eurocentric museum practices spread into non-Western places, especially in regions where colonial influence proved strong.

As a historian most interested in culture and ideas, I’ve found museums to be an extremely fruitful theme for critical study. Historians generally agree that museums manifest expressions of colonial scientific enterprises evolving over time. While these institutions were, for a time, great engines for intellectual production—rivaling (and indeed, in many cases overshadowing) sleepy colleges and universities—anthropologists, archaeologists, and many other museum-based scientists began to shift their focus to more theoretically-oriented questions. Curators and other museum staff still engaged in extensive fieldwork, but with less emphasis on collecting objects for display. Some important curators left museum jobs for faculty positions at universities, and by the mid-twentieth century, the emphasis in museums began to shift to education, rather than research. Exhibitions became increasingly more important, as did other forms of educational programming. Collecting gave way to display.

I’m not the first historian to recognize the potential for studying the past through studying museums. Far from it. In fact, dozens of historians, anthropologists, and other writers have found museums to be a valuable lens through which we can learn more about intellectual history, cross-cultural interaction, class, race, and nationalism. George W. Stocking was long considered the doyen in the history of anthropology. He wrote and edited numerous books and essays, including landmark collections on the history of anthropology and the social sciences as they developed over the long-nineteenth century. Others continue to build on these and other early studies to create a fascinating body of literature on museum history. This list represents only a small slice of the rich literature on the topic.

Places to Start

An invaluable resource for anyone starting to explore the history of museums, Bennett guides the reader through the history of museums from their earliest iterations in Europe to the more modern theoretical challenges facing museums. Embarking from the theorizations of Michel Foucault, Bennett shows how museums work to entrench certain cultural and social behavioral norms, and how large fair exhibits helped develop “exhibition cultures” and practices for display.

This book argues museums were once among the most important sites producing knowledge—especially object oriented knowledge—or as Conn describes it, “object based epistemology.” Between about the 1870s and 1930s, museums in the United States were home to some of the nation’s top researchers and scientific minds, who were supported in fieldwork, writing, and opportunities to collect new specimens. Over time, as Conn demonstrates, many intellectual concerns and top minds thinking about them began to shift to university campus, like the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, who moved from the American Museum of Natural History to Columbia University early in the twentieth century.

One of the only true histories of the Smithsonian and Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), this book provides background on the development of American anthropology on the institutional level. On a pragmatic level, the work of BAE fieldworkers—anthropologists, linguists, and ethnomusicologists among them—fed objects, papers, and artifacts into the rapidly collections at the Smithsonian. On an intellectual level, Frank Hamilton Cushing, John Peabody Harrington, and Frances Densmore all shaped their emerging fields through intense writing and publication while simultaneously shipping physical collections to Washington, D.C.

Digging In

The most widely read book in the nineteenth century United States was the Bible, and American archaeologists at the time sought connections between its stories by turning to the Ancient World. The University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University were among the many places sponsoring large expeditions to what are now Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Israel. Not only did a huge number of artifacts come back to museums in the United States as a result of these early archaeological expeditions, they were widely reported in popular media.

This remarkable and under-recognized book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of museum anthropology in the United States by exploring the story of one institution: The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. A carefully developed series of essays shows, for example, how expeditions became spectacular successes or tense failures. Biographical pieces show curators to be passionate and occasionally obsessive—sometimes more comfortable in the faraway place where they conduct fieldwork than at “home” in Chicago. For historians, it also contains useful data: appendices showing how many anthropology expeditions and exhibitions happened in any given year, and lists of museum staff and their tenure.

Museum archaeologists used their connections, prestige, and influence to engage in a particularly competitive race to gather the best archaeological materials from the American Southwest. The indigenous peoples who created societies and lived there for centuries stood up to these efforts for decades if not far longer, before a massive awakening on the issue alongside the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. Over time, this would lead to monumental legislative achievements including the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection or Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA created a legal framework through which Native American tribes, like those throughout the Southwest, could demand the return of sacred artifacts and ancestral human remains from museums receiving federal funding. In 2015, the National Park Service estimated that 50,518 individual sets of human remains have been returned to tribes.

By 1900, Germany featured some of the largest and best-known ethnography museums in the world, but they were nearly bursting at the seams, overflowing with a confused mish-mash of cultural objects. This problem caused many leading museum thinkers in Germany to focus on a more nuanced style of empiricism, devoted to creating a science of human culture and history. Penny reminds us that museums are influenced by a variety of factors beyond intellectual influences alone—market forces, collecting realities, and demands made by both local patrons and visitors work to change the dynamic over time. The desire to “salvage” the material culture of supposedly vanishing cultures deeply influenced German anthropologists, engaging in a frenzy of gathering while limited by unwritten rules of what were acceptable collecting practices.

Museums arguably originated in Western societies, but have since spread to nearly every part of the world. Using the case of the Museum Balanga in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia, Kreps, a museum expert and anthropologist, interrogates how Eurocentric museum ideals have deeply influenced emerging non-Western museums. She compares how this museum and others in the region have worked to free themselves from traditional museum practices and upend “traditional” assumptions in heritage preservation. It shows how context deeply shapes and potentially reorients what is appropriate in a museum context.

New Moves

Many books proclaiming to be about the early history of museums are confined mainly to the story of “Cabinets of Curiosity,” or wunderkammern. While laying important groundwork for later museums, the early passion for collecting influenced any number of emergent disciplines from art to anthropology and geology to biology. In a series of fourteen essays, the editors of this volume bring together historians, art historians, and historians of science to offer richer context for early collecting in the Atlantic world, showing, for example, how Native Americans came to value certain European produced goods while other goods became more popular in Java. Trade and value as a cross-cultural concept were critical in shaping early collections.

“Public History” as a field outside academia had its start in the federal government’s nineteenth and twentieth century investments in preserving and interpreting natural and cultural resources—efforts that became our, per the title, museums, monuments, and National Parks. It was not until the emergence of history programs in the National Park Service in the 1920s and 1930s that ‘public history’ found an institutional home. The challenge of this federal support for history was that professional historians found themselves at times at odds with the thrust to memorialize, rather than interpret, key spaces in the American story.

In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution will open the National Museum of African American History and Culture. African Americans have long been active agents in responding to and shaping how their stories are presented in public, however. In this innovative book, Burns traces the origins of black museum culture back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the Civil Rights Movement influenced a host of fresh museums concentrating on African American History and culture, including the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.