1907 American Association of Museums Meeting Identifications

Presentation by Frederick A. Lucas

The following paper was presented by F. A. Lucas, Curator-in-Chief of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.


A discussion of the objects of museums may well be preceded by a brief sketch of their origin and evolution, and, if some of my remarks sound trite to our older members, they may be of interest to our visitors and younger members. For the character of museums has changed so greatly during the past half-century that those who know these institutions only as they exist today may not realize how widely they differ from what they were even twenty-five years ago. Any dictionary will tell you that museum comes from muse and that from meaning a grove sacred to the muses, it has come to mean an institution devoted to the arts and sciences personified by these divinities. But, as the muses in turn are believed to have evolved from the nymphs, which, dwelling in fountains and forests, are the embodiment of the very spirit of nature itself, so museums, from being mere recorders of scientific facts, have come to devote their energies largely to displaying the denizens of field and forest in such manner that the varied life of distant regions may be set before the dweller in towns.

We are usually referred to the museum at Alexandria for the beginnings of natural history museums, but this was hardly a museum in the modern sense, while the germs of such institutions are to be found far earlier than that. About 325 B.C. Alexander the Great brought with him from India and elsewhere specimens for the use of Aristotle, the father of natural history, and earlier still Hanno, the Carthaginian, on his voyage down the coast of Africa, secured the skins of Gorillas, which on his return were placed in the Temple of Astarte, perhaps the first record of specimens being placed on exhibition. And it may not be amiss to note that a portion of this same temple, though probably of much later date than the time of Hanno, is now in the National Museum of Washington. While a variety of causes have contributed to the formation of museums of natural history, the curiosity of man-nowadays we term it his thirst for knowledge-lies at the very foundation of our museums of science, for they may be said to have originated in the gathering of specimens from distant lands to gratify the desires of men of more or less scientific attainments. And if you will name over the largest museums of the world you will find that they are those of great commercial nations and that they bear an almost direct relation to the extent of the commerce of their respective countries.

As a side issue may be noted the specimens of new and quaint animals that were to be seen at some of the coffee-houses of the seventeenth century. These are worth at least passing mention, for two or three of Artedi’s species of fishes were based on such specimens, and they are evidences of the general interest in foreign animals.

Owing to the activity of England in colonizing North America, the United States, that was to be, played a most important part in stimulating the growth of museums, the plants and animals brought from the new world swelling many a private collection that in time became part of some public museum. It is only necessary to recall the number of American plants and animals that bear scientific names given by Linnaeus to realize the amount of collecting being carried on in America during the eighteenth century, for two thirds of the reptiles and one third of the birds and mammals described in the famous twelfth edition of the “Systema Naturae” were American.

The collections of scientific societies were, to a great extent, the successors of the cabinets of private individuals, but while these have done a vast amount of valuable scientific work, and some have practically developed into public museums, they have been the last to feel the effect of the ways of progress, to adapt themselves to new conditions, and adopt new ideas. In fact I think we are justified in saying that scientific societies have had less influence in the founding of museums than have the efforts of private individuals.

For a long time museums existed only for men of wealth and men of science, the idea of benefiting the general public being a secondary consideration, if it was considered at all. Sad to say, the first museums to be thrown open to the public at large were founded less with an idea of instructing the visitor than of making money out of his natural desire to see new and strange objects. The most famous of these was the Leverian Museum, London, brought together by Sir Ashton Lever, which contained specimens of such importance that when it was broken up and came under the auctioneer’s hammer, representatives of the great museums of Europe were present at the sale1. The more familiar of these institutions in the United States were Barnum’s and the Boston Museum, both of which, like their European prototypes, sought to add to their interest and revenue by having a theatre as an adjunct. In the case of the Boston Museum the theatre outgrew the museum and came to be the home of one of the most celebrated stock companies in the United States. These institutions were antedated by Peale’s Museum, which was also more scientific in its character, and from 1822 to 1828 was installed in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, and later moved to Baltimore, where it was unfortunately destroyed by fire.

Many of these early institutions contained really valuable specimens, but they also contained a large proportion of objects that now find a place by themselves in the well-known dime museums, which in a way are their direct, if degenerate, successors.

Peale’s mastodon, the Warren mastodon, and the Missourium of Koch were thus exhibited, and were to be seen for a consideration, although eventually one found its way to the British Museum, and one has recently come to the American Museum of Natural History.

While such things as these were not so few in number as to be exceptional to the general rule, yet a vast number of objects were of that class rightly called curiosities, a comprehensive term that embraces a vast and miscellaneous category of objects, including the familiar and ever-present petrified potato and four-legged chicken. If there is anything that a museum has no use and no place for, it is the mere curiosity, but, as John Minto says in a recent article, “It will take years to do away with the idea of museums still entertained by many that they are storehouses of curiosities.”

Thus the cabinet of the mere gatherer of curiosities, the collections of men of science, and the museum open to the visitor upon the payment of a fee, have each and all played their part and paved the way to the real public museum. Expositions, numerous though they have been, have done little to change the character of natural history museums, although they have led to the establishment of some. Their influence, however, has been felt by the public, who have been made acquainted with their work, and especially of that of our own National Museum.

The public museum, that is, the museum free to the public and owned or operated in whole or in part by government, either state or municipal, may by said to date from the opening of the British Museum in 1759, although admission to this great institution was at first by ticket and limited to thirty persons in one day. This may be termed the entering point of the wedge, but the idea of making the museum interesting to the public and of any general educational value was yet to come. Our own National Museum was formally created by Act of Congress as late as 1876, although thirty years earlier the Government possessed collections which were in the custody of the Smithsonian Institution.

The following extract from a Guide to “The General Contents of the British Museum,” published by Messrs. Dodsley in 1762, will be of interest to those who only know museums as they exist today: “Some of my readers may be ignorant of the Manner of applying to see the Museum; for their Information I shall add, that fifteen Persons are allowed to view it in one Company; the Time allotted is two Hours; and when any Number not exceeding fifteen are inclined to see it, they must send a List of their Christian and Sirnames, Additions, and Places of Abode, to the Porter’s Lodge, in order to their being entered in the Book; in a few Days the respective Tickets will be made out, specifying the Day and Hour in which they are to come, which on being sent for, are delivered. If by any Accident some of the Parties are prevented from coming, it is proper they send their Tickets back to the Lodge, as no body can be admitted with it but themselves. It is to be remarked, that the fewer Names there are in a List, the sooner they are likely to be admitted to see it.”

But as the British Museum was perhaps the first to open its doors free, if not freely, to the public, so it was one of the first at least of the larger institutions to consider the question of making its collections interesting to the ordinary visitor.

Here I will confess that I have been surprised to find that such men as Owen and Günther, who might well be considered as caring nothing for the educational or esthetic side of the museum problem, were among those to advocate making museums of general interest. Perhaps these are among the many instances where museum officers have been wrongly judged and blamed then, as they are today, for the existence of conditions for which they are in no wise responsible.

The British Museum was, so far as I can ascertain, the first to break away from old traditions and attempt to exhibit animals amid their natural surroundings. It is entirely probable that the example of private individuals contributed largely to this movement and that the little case of birds with a paper rock and tow tree may be the germ from which have grown such groups. In fact the change in the British Museum is said to have been directly due to the private museum formed by E. T. Booth, who is claimed to have been the first to exhibit, “not merely a collection of stuffed birds but rather a true representation of bird life and haunts.”

The importance of the step taken by the British Museum can only be appreciated by those who saw the British Museum in its old and cramped quarters, with every inch of space occupied, specimens even hung against the ceiling, and cases crowded with serried ranks of stuffed animals, many of which might appropriately have been relegated to the care of the department of archeology.

To our British brethren also belongs the credit, not only of being the first to see the educational possibilities of museums, but of having availed themselves of the opportunities offered to a greater extent than any other nation; for there are today in England more museums with popular or educational features than in any other country.

Development was slow at first, and those who today have the pleasure of uttering those dangerous words, “I told you so,” can well remember the cold water poured upon their timid suggestions that any change in the then existing order of things was desirable, and the disfavor with which their modest attempts at improvement were received.

“Spread-eagle styles of mounting, artificial rocks and flowers, etc., are entirely out of place in a collection of any scientific pretentions or designed for popular instruction. Birds look best on the whole in uniform rows, assorted according to size…, and set on the plainest stands.” So wrote Dr. Coues in 1874, or little more than thirty years ago, and he probably voiced the opinion held by the majority of museum officers of that date. But times have changed. The monotonous rows of birds and mammals are largely relegated to the study series, and their places taken by groups that counterfeit, or at least suggest, nature, and display not merely animals, but show where they live and what they do. Further than this the effort is made to show the methods by which nature attains her ends; variation, mimicry, adaptation to surroundings, the effects of environments, these, and many others, are among the many things museums seek to teach. To anticipate a little, it may be said that here is where a museum has, and should have, a very direct relation to schools by providing good examples of what to the pupil are apt to be rather vague ideas. Mimicry, subspecies, influence of environment, are all discussed in text-books, but their meaning is much better gathered from objects that illustrate these facts. Formerly museums displayed objects merely, now they must be the exponents of ideas, and this changed condition of affairs has been brought about almost within the last twenty-five years, certainly within the last half-century.

This change in the scope of a museum has led to, or been accompanied by, a change in the character of labels, for as the character of museum specimens changed, so also did the labels accompanying them. Formerly a collection was looked upon as well labeled if every other specimen bore a name and locality, the scientific name being placed first as a survival of the time when museums were for scientific men alone, just as women put bows on their dresses as a survival of the time when they were tied together instead of being pinned. Now a label is supposed to tell something about the object it accompanies, the common name comes first and the scientific name modestly follows. Furthermore, to supplement the labels a new class of museum literature has come into existence; we have handbooks written in a more or less popular vein, and many museums issue a regular journal in the shape of a bulletin to let the public know what is being done and to furnish information about the institution, its collections, and its work. In addition to all this we have courses of lectures relating to subjects which the collections illustrate, and these lectures vary from formal addresses to large audiences to talks or demonstrations given to small parties in the exhibition halls.

Thus museums have passed through several distinct stages; at first they were indiscriminate gatherings of “curios,” objects of art, and specimens of natural history. Then, by the inevitable process of segregation, natural history came to have a place by itself, the collections of scientific societies developed as storehouses of material, mainly for the use of the specialist and the public museums derived from these were largely dryly scientific in their character.

The next step was for the scientific museum to borrow a page from its predecessor and discarding its mere curios adopt the idea of making collections attractive and interesting to the public. Now we are in the educational stage where the needs of the public are considered as much as those of the student, and the object of the collections, so far as their display is concerned, is to interest and instruct, interest being placed first, because if you cannot arouse the interest of visitors you cannot instruct them.

It has come to be recognized that a collection should not be made hap-hazard, but should have some definite purpose, and the specimens of which it is composed be parts of a connected and consistent whole.

To many this is no doubt a truism, but as some of our visitors many not realize this, I trust the remark may be pardonable.

One reason why a collector of stamps is usually regarded lightly is that he generally has no end in view other than to obtain as many different stamps as possible. The stamps have no definite meaning in themselves, it is what they suggest, not what they show, that is of value. To the stamp collector a surcharged stamp is more valuable than a plain stamp, and one that has been printed upside-down is vastly enhanced in value. But it is a fact that a stamp was surcharged for some definite purpose and marks some historical event of more or less importance that ought to give it value. As for the stamp printed upside-down it is absolutely devoid of value or interest save for the collector, since it illustrates no fact other than that accidents are bound to occur.

It must not be supposed that the naturalist, and particularly the amateur, does not have his fads and fancies, for he is as liable to attacks of this disease as anyone else. The great auk illustrates this point very well. It is not so rare as dozens of other birds, it illustrates no important fact in nature better than a score or more of other birds, and yet mounted specimens, and especially eggs, bring higher prices than any other bird or egg. Why? Simply because the great auk is a fad, and there are just enough specimens to stimulate interest-and bids-when the bird or its eggs come up for sale.

Museums of history are exceptions to the general rule that objects should show something, and so to some extent are museums of ethnology, for these differ from other museums in the fact that their value does not lie so much in the character of the objects displayed as in the associations connected with them. In a way museums of history are museums of ethnology, being records of the culture of a given time and race.

A large portion of the “relics” of great men, considered by themselves would find their way to the junk shop, or ash heap; their real value lies in the suggestions of other times and great events they conjure up. Let me illustrate this as regards ethnology. In the Hall of Ethnology in the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute are ten small pieces of weathered wood, roughly carved to represent the human form. Intrinsically they are of small value, even for kindling, but when we learn that these are ten of the original thirteen war gods of the Old Zuñis, that they were venerated for centuries, that the priests alone might enter their sacred presence, and that it was death for the stranger to despoil their shrine, and they become of great interest. In this case it is not what the objects are, but what they stand for.

A collection of specimens does not make a museum any more than a collection of paints and brushes makes an artist. It is not what we have, but what we do with what we have that produces results, and the true value of a museum does not lie in its specimens alone, but in what it does or what is done with them. It would be possible to have a collection of specimens costing thousands of dollars the intrinsic educational value of which would be practically nothing.

The educational value of any collection depends not on its size, nor the rarity of its specimens, but on what it teaches. Nor does the value of a specimen depend merely on the fact that people wish to see it, for I regret to say that there is an attraction of repulsion, a morbid curiosity, that makes many, if not most of us, wish to see things in themselves unpleasant. There are people who collect bits of rope with which various criminals have been hung, and I remember in my early days gazing with much interest upon some such objects (probably taken from a convenient clothes line) in Barnum’s old museum.

So it would be possible to make an exhibition of great popular interest, not one object of which should be publicly exhibited. The two objects most frequently asked for in the National Museum were Guiteau’s skeleton and the boots made of human skin.

So much for what a museum should, or should not be. But as theories are one thing, and facts another, it must be remembered that a museum is rarely the outcome of a definite plan, but the resultant of many forces, a compromise between what the director would like to do and what the time and funds at his disposal and the limitations imposed upon him by the architect permit him to do. There are, moreover, two things essential in building up a museum, money, and time, and the latter is much more necessary than one might be led to suppose. Given plenty of money-and no museum man has ever been known to admit that he has had a plenty-it is often difficult to bring together the material necessary to carry out well-defined schemes.

And here I will rest the case for the museum; we are not doing for the public what we would like to do, nor what we hope to do, but as fast as possible we shall increase the educational side of our collections. There are more difficulties in the way than the average visitor probably dreams of, and not the least of these are what may be termed purely physical obstacles, the lack of rooms, the unfitness of buildings and cases, the difficulty or impossibility of procuring certain specimens. And as Martha was cumbered with much serving so the museum superintendent is hampered with much housekeeping. There are, indeed, many discouragements in museum work, and there are many times when a conscientious man, knowing the cost of what may appear to the public a comparatively small piece of work, cannot avoid asking himself the questions, ‘does it all pay? – does the end achieved warrant the outlay of time, labor, and money it has cost? –what does it all amount to anyway?’ And the answer to the questions we leave to time and to the public.

1 A most interesting account of this, and similar institutions, by Prof. Alfred Newton, is given in the Proceedings of the Museum Association of Great Britain for 1891, page 28, “Notes on Some Old Museums.”

Three more papers, presented by Gilman, Dorsey, and Ward, were presented in the evening session after Lucas spoke. Following the last paper, a spirited discussion took place concerning the four papers (pages of 103-106 of the Proceedings).

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