Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 1999
Steven Conn Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876–1926 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 313 pp.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $32.50 (0226114937)

In this study of American culture between the Centennial and Sesquicentennial, Steven Conn argues that American museums played a vital role in the production and dissemination of knowledge. Believing that their duty was to educate and enlighten, museums offered an eager public vast arrays of systematically organized artifacts. Displayed in glass cases, these artifacts spelled out compelling narratives of evolutionary change, of savagery and civilization, of intractable backwardness and triumphant human progress. Until the early 1900s, this “object-based epistemology” allowed museums to bring the latest scientific discoveries to public notice. But as universities began to place greater emphasis on scientific investigation and as researchers abandoned the once stable taxonomies of Victorian science for theory and experimentation, museums lost their central place in American intellectual life. By the 1920s, museums were redefining their mission and modus operandi, becoming unabashed purveyors of entertainment and amusement as well as enlightenment. As Conn observes, “between 1876 and 1926 [museums] struggled to make sense of an industrial and Darwinian world and to put it on display; [however] they could not keep up with Einstein’s universe.”

Because it elucidates common patterns in the histories of different museum types, what might be called Conn’s hypothesis—the story of a massive museological paradigm shift during the period under consideration—represents an important advance in the understanding of the history of the museum as an institution in American society. Still, as Conn would be the first to concede, his hypothesis applies in greater or lesser degree to different types of institutions.

Museums of natural history and anthropology best fit his historical model; the histories of other types of institutions—museums of commerce, history and art—reveal parallel if not entirely equivalent developments. Conn further qualifies his argument by focusing mainly, although not exclusively, on institutions in Philadelphia and its environs—the Academy of Natural Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, the Mercer Museum (in Bucks County), and the Pennsylvania Museum (later the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Although Conn’s book began life as a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, his choice of examples is not simply a matter of research convenience. Taken together, the institutions that interest him formed a late Victorian “exhibitionary complex” (to employ Tony Bennett’s evocative phrase), making available to a wide audience a multifaceted and perhaps inherently contradictory representation of the world. Conn’s fine-grained analysis of these institutions brings to light the peculiarities of their histories but the institutions in question can also be understood as so many test cases: for example, Conn’s detailed discussion of the creation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art out of the Pennsylvania Museum carries important implications for other art museums of the period.

Conn’s chapter on natural history museums epitomizes his argument. In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences was an extraordinarily popular institution, drawing as many as 100,000 visitors in 1869, “even though the museum was open only two days a week.” Like other natural history museums in the United States, the academy focused on paleontology: the collection, description, classification, and systematic display of fossil specimens. “Through these displays, the public saw a natural world arranged with taxonomic order and precision.” However, Darwin’s Origin of Species initiated “dramatic changes not only in the ways scientific knowledge would be pursued but also in the ways scientific knowledge would be institutionally organized.” Although the academy recognized the importance of Darwin’s discoveries, it could not readily balance its traditional role as an institution for amateur scientific study “against the demands of an increasingly specialized and professional scientific world,” nor could it compete with universities as centers of scientific investigation. By the end of the 1920s, the academy had abandoned “object-based epistemology” and its claims to cutting-edge science for “popular exhibits” including lifelike dioramas that drew large audiences to the museum.

Conn pursues a similar argument in his chapter on museums and the rise of anthropology. Here he shows how anthropology grew up within, and then quickly emancipated itself from, the confines of museum-based natural history. Conn recounts the beginnings of the Field Museum in Chicago, where anthropology was added to botany, zoology, and geology as the fourth component of natural history, and how, as early as 1894, Franz Boas, working as an assistant to the museum’s director, began agitating for a “globally focused museum of anthropology.” Frustrated in Chicago, Boas moved to New York where he split his time between the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. Boas’s decision in 1905 to resign from his post at the museum and devote his energies to training a new generation of academic anthropologists meant, “among other things, that universities would now be the primary sites for the production of anthropological knowledge.” But this bare outline only hints at the riches in this chapter, which centers on a discussion of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. The museum opened in its permanent home in 1899 and was “among the first institutions in this country—and probably the most ambitious—to create a separate space, both physically and intellectually, for the display of human artifacts apart from collections of natural history specimens.” Conn analyzes the museum’s displays at length, describing how the museum employed an evolutionary model to organize its collections with the artifacts of “timeless” New World societies relegated to its lowest level and historical artifacts from Old World civilizations occupying the upper floors. Thus the museum classified some human groups in terms of culture and others in terms of history. In the end, however, Boas and other academic anthropologists “fundamentally undermined the ‘evolutionary’ assumptions about human culture on which anthropology museums had been founded”: “Object-based epistemology” once again succumbed to newer forms of knowledge, and early anthropological museums were left “popularizing what were seen by professional anthropologists to be outdated ideas.”

In chapters devoted to the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, and Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, Conn takes up two additional museum types founded on a belief in the capacity of objects to convey meaning. The Commercial Museum, now forgotten but “once an enormous and important operation,” was the work of William Wilson, a University of Pennsylvania botanist (Conn doesn’t miss the connection here between object-based natural history and the attempt to create a natural history of commerce). The museum, which opened in 1893, was designed to promote the expansion of American overseas trade, and to that end it displayed collections of goods from around the world. Yet the museum’s backers apparently understood the limits on the knowledge its objects might impart, and a Bureau of Information supplemented its cased exhibits. Still, the museum could not keep up with the growing demand for business information nor could it compete with Herbert Hoover’s Department of Commerce, and although it lingered on in one form or another until 1995, it had much earlier lost its raison d’etre.

If the Philadelphia Commercial Museum ended in failure, the Mercer Museum and Greenfield Village can be counted as qualified popular successes (and as pioneers in the field of material culture). In his chapter on the two museums, Conn underlines the growing gap during the 1910s and 1920s between popular, object-based history and the versions of history put forward by the academic profession. Mercer and Ford wholeheartedly believed in learning history from objects (Ford’s famous “history is bunk” was directed at historians), but while Mercer clung tenaciously to the idea that his collection of pre-industrial artifacts could far more effectively than books relate the nation’s story, Ford was at least partially aware that his own museum would be more nostalgic celebration than serious history.

The chapter dealing with “Art Museums and the Creation of Art” departs most from the pattern of the earlier chapters, but here, too, Conn is able to trace a major paradigm shift, albeit one only distantly related to his hypothesis. Conn observes that the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts initially modeled themselves after London’s South Kensington Museum, an institution that had attempted to wed art and industry, but in the early 1900s the museums’ concerns changed. In place of a Ruskin-inspired program of industrial arts education, the two institutions began focusing their efforts on collecting fine art (painting, sculpture, and architecture). Conn maintains that unlike collections of natural history specimens or anthropological artifacts, works of fine art even today “continue to function successfully as objects” because “art history and art museums enjoy a close intellectual relationship.” In my view, Conn’s argument here oversimplifies the reasons for the continuing success of art museums and also ignores long-standing tensions, most recently remarked on at a conference at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, between museum art history (as it might be called) and academic art history.

Conn writes as a historian attached to empirical research and, it appears, a tradition of pragmatist thought. He has little use for postmodernistist formulations, and at the outset he rather brusquely rejects what he takes to be “historically shallow” theorizing about the relation of knowledge to power. Conn says he is mainly concerned with understanding “more completely how [late nineteenth-century museum builders] constructed their categories of knowledge and what those categories meant.” This he has done with insight and panache in an interdisciplinary tour de force, and perhaps one shouldn’t quibble about his relative lack of concern for how power operates in the museum or the specific ways in which elites of the period used museums to respond to the social crises of their epoch.

Alan Wallach
Ralph H. Wark Professor of Art and Art History, Art and Art History Department, The College of William and Mary