1907 American Association of Museums Meeting Identifications

Presentation by Dr. George A. Dorsey

Dr. George A. Dorsey of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, presented this paper as part of the public forum held on Tuesday evening. Dorsey strongly argues for the central place of investigation and research in advancing scientific endeavors at museums. In doing so, he raises some controversial points that are still applicable today in discussions of the aims of museums. Dorsey provides quite different perspectives than those advanced by Dr. George Brown Goode, assistant secretary at the Smithsonian Institution.

The function of any institution, especially of a public museum, must be determined to a certain extent by circumstances. There are, however, certain fundamental principles which, it sees to me, are applicable to museums in general. First and foremost it should be the aim of the museum to promote the advancement of the subject, whether it be art or science, which is embraced within the scope of the museum. By advancement I mean not so much what is commonly understood as the diffusion of knowledge, as the advancement which results from new investigation. I believe that it is the duty, and should be the aim of every institution, to undertake as much investigation as possible.

In the second place, the aim of the museum must be determined by the requirements, not of the present day, but of future generations, for an institution, especially any museum of wide range, which attempts to adapt itself to the supposed present requirements of any community will find that it has largely surrendered its power for investigation; above all it will find that it cannot adequately serve such a requirement, inasmuch as from the very nature of the attempt its exhibi halls must always be in a transient condition.

We may say then that the aim of the museum, so far as its exhibit series is concerned, should not be addressed primarily to the supposed needs of a community, but that it should be governed in its exhibit of material by the desire to present the universal facts or laws of its science which will be of the widest possible application.

In other words, its aim must be, both in its laboratories and in its public halls, to promote the discovery and the exemplification of the fundamental principles of the subject or division represented; and these principles, of course, are the same for whatsoever branch of science the museum may be devoted, whether it be ethnology, geology, fine arts, or history, for, as all science is one in its methods, the general principles which govern the aims of a scientific institution must be the same.

So much for the general principles, which in my estimation are applicable to museums of whatsoever nature. One or two points of minor importance may be considered. You are all familiar with G. Brown Goode’s words so often quoted: “An efficient, educational museum may be described as a collection of instructive labels, each illustrated by a well-selected specimen.” A museum arranged on this plan may, in my estimation, be efficient and may be educational, but it would not necessarily be scientific, and it certainly would not have general public interest. It seems to me that the conscious striving to make the public museum educational, defeats the object of the museum and causes it thereby to surrender a very much higher function.

Still another statement of Goode’s seems in this connection worthy of a moment’s notice, namely, that, in which he defines a museum as “an institution for the preservation of those objects which best illustrate the phenomena of nature and the works of man, and the utilization of these for the increase of knowledge and for the culture and enlightenment of the people.” This definition of a museum may have seemed adequate twenty years ago, but an institution which today states as its primary aim the preservation of objects is foredestined to mediocrity. This is preeminently true of certain departments of science such as ethnology and paleontology. I single out these two departments of science because of them it is, as I have said, especially true, that their function is not the preservation of specimens so much as it is obtaining them; and this, of course, is simply a preliminary step to their study, from which is to follow the generalizations representing fundamental biological principles. In still another place Goode states as the function of a museum, “the preservation and utilization of objects of nature and the works of art and industry”; and to this I must again insist that the importance thus attached to the preservation of objects as the special function of a museum is against the highest welfare of any great institution, and that especially it relegates the true function of a museum to the background.

While not bearing specifically upon the chief aim or function of a museum, there is still another matter that seems to me worthy of consideration. This has to do with the storage of material. I suppose that every museum administrator has no difficulty in conceiving good theoretical grounds for the storage of large amounts of material, but I believe the general principle of storage, except in special instances, is bad, and even often vicious. My chief reason for this statement is based upon the fact that storage material tends to deteriorate; especially does it lose much of its vitality. This is to a large extent unavoidable, and the explanation for the reason thereof is a psychological one. My experience is that storage material is not examined, and that so-called “study collections” are not studied; and, except in a very few instances, I doubt greatly whether science has been advanced to the extent of the price of the bottles, to say nothing of the cost of the alcohol, for all the rows and rows of jars of fishes and snakes which are to be found in almost every museum which even dabbles in natural history. Certainly an examination of the so-called study collections of storage material of ethnology generally reveals a sad state of affairs. It seems to me that too often the museum curator assumes the attitude of the farmer, who, unable to throw anything away, hoards everything up with the expectation that some day it will be of use. Specimens in themselves are not sacred. Their value lies not in themselves, but in the light they throw upon the great problems of the universe, biological or otherwise.

I may state in conclusion that I consider the chief aim of a museum the advancement of science. This is its function; it must not go to the public; it must lead. Science is but a description and is always simple and easily understood if properly presented. This does not imply that a casual visitor will grasp the principles of any science by a visit of an hour or so in any museum; this does not necessarily follow any more than that one should understand astronomy from a few visits to an observatory.

The promotion, the advancement of science in the laboratory, and the writing in large letters of the laws of science, this should be the aim of every public museum.

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