The Nature of Early Museums in America

Museums in America have changed greatly since their creation, and in other ways they have stayed the same. Early American museums differed widely in their ideas of presentation and subject matter. Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia is truly the forerunner to the modern American museum, while a museum like P.T. Barnum’s American Museum is no longer in exitance as an academic “museum.” A “museum” like Barnum’s today would be called a roadside attraction or a sideshow at a circus. The idea of what it means to be a “museum” has become more refined. Also, throughout the years museums in America have been made more accessible to a wider variety of audiences, but museums still tend to attract certain people. Yet, as a whole American Museums have evolved in their types of collections, the ways those collections are displayed, and are continuing their work to appeal to a broader audience.

Peale’s Philadelphia museum is often considered the first public natural history museum in America. American Museums, just like their country had to build their museum collections from the ground up. America had no royal collection that could be turned into a museum. Enter Charles Wilson Peale. Peale was a painter, but also collected natural history specimen. He arranged his objects in what he believed to be their order of importance, a hierarchy of sorts. (Reason 1/24 lecture) Peale had an overwhelming degree of stuff, and it was all just packed into Philosophical Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvanian. Peale wanted his museum to be a “great national magazine of those subjects in nature.” (Brigham pg. 24) His museum was open to the general public. Peale “was deeply committed to popular education,” (Kulik pg.4) and he put a strong emphasis on self-education which his museum embodied. There was a fee to get in Peale’s museum, but it was not unreasonable and therefore affordable to most people.

Titian Ramsey Peale, Charles Peale’s son, improved methods of preservation for entomological specimens, and prepared botanical illustrations. (Reason 1/24 lecture) Peale’s methods of display remain in use today. He created the idea of a diorama set up, where the animal or artifact would have a backdrop of a its natural habitat. Museum visitors are now accustomed to seeing specimen in the habitat in which it lived or existed. (Reason 1/24 lecture). Today, museum goers would not expect to see a museum stuffed to the brim with artifacts, or to have portraits of famous people like Benjamin Franklin lumped together with natural history specimen, like Peale arranged his. Modern museums specialize in certain artifacts and give the items that are being viewed room to breathe, so that they may be appreciated from every angle.

P.T. Barnum was a bold entrepreneur, but was not always successful in his ventures. One of his more successful undertakings was P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, located on Broadway in New York and painted bright colors. It had a band playing loudly, but terribly outside to attract guests. (Reason 1/29 lecture) Barnum’s museum was filled with people who were different, people with physical oddities, live animals, and very odd artifacts. Barnum’s collections where rather haphazard. For example, he would put bugs with suit of armor. (Reason 1/29 lecture) Barnum also liked to stir controversy, because it was free press. He was a firm believer in the idea that there was no such things as bad press. He was a master at advertising, and rotated his exhibits. (Reason 1/29 lecture) He always had something new up his sleeve and in his museum galleries. Museums today do not display human oddities in the same exploitive way that Barnum did, but they do still rotate exhibits and have continued to work on new ways of advertising.

Barnums’ museum was considered a “dime museum”, or one that was for the working class. The elite still enjoyed it as well, but they also had the option of going to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art that had opened in 1872. When it opened it was considered an elite museum, one that was for “refined white people”. (Reason 1/29 lecture) The fee to get into the museum and the hours that it was open were designed to keep the working class out. If the working class were to even be aloud in “would the working class even behave properly in the space?” (Reason 1/29 lecture) Today, museums are doing more to appeal to all audiences, but there are definitely museums that still have an exclusive feel. It is well known that museums tend to attract older white people more than any other group. So, museums have gone out of their way to create new events, such as yoga in an art gallery or a game night in a historic house museum to attract younger people who may not otherwise visit the site. (Reason 1/14) Museums are really trying to reach all audiences through special events and permanent programing.

The opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art marked the opening of the first museum in America that was exclusively dedicated to displaying art. (Reason 1/31 lecture) This ended collections like Peales’ who had paintings thrown into his natural history displays. Art was now its own exhibit. At first the Metropolitan Museum of Art hung as many paintings as they could fit on a wall. Some walls were filled ceiling to floor with paintings. Today the art pieces are more spread out and easier to view. This was a distinct step in American museums as collections grew more specialized. Museums no longer held fascinating objects from a wide variety of sources and interests, but rather specialized in interesting artifacts that were all of the same genre.

Another difference between early American museums and museums today is the focus on which class gets their story told and preserved. In early American museums, only the elite upper class had their history preserved. This can be seen in the beginning of house museums and museum period rooms. People were, and still are, fascinated by how rich people throughout history have lived, but just focusing on the elite does not give the full picture of history. Museums today want to give the fullest picture of history possible. Mount Vernon is doing more to talk about the enslaved population on George Washington’s plantation through first person interpretation and exhibits, such as their current display entitled “Lives Bound Together.” (Reason 2/12 lecture) There has also been an effort in the museum world to preserve buildings that the lower class historically resided in such as the Tenement Museum on the lower east side of New York. This museum has dug into the sites history and tells the stories of the people who lived there, just like a visitor would expect at the home of a president. The Tenement Museum also tires to hire immigrants who will sometimes tell their own stories along with the tour. (Reason 2/14 lecture) Museums in modern America are working towards representing a fuller portrait of all walks and ways of life that have come together to build America.

Early museums in America left a legacy that still influences American museums today, but with time, along with new methods of research and preservation museums of have changed. Museum collections are now grouped together with like items, and artifacts are no longer crammed into cabinets, but rather one object may even have its own display case. This allows people to properly and fully view the item in all its glory. Museums are constantly trying to appeal to a broader audience, and are no longer actively trying to keep people out. Museums workers are trying to make the institutions in which they work a welcoming space for all ways of life to come together and experience a full, rich, and vibrant presentation of artifacts.

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