Monday, July 24, 2006

Book review: 100 Years of Museums in America

Riches, Rivals, and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America by Marjorie Schwarzer, is $40 from American Association of Museums.

If you work at a museum, botanical garden, park, living history museum, arboretum, or zoo, this book places your efforts and your site in the larger context of educational cultural institutions. I felt proud when I finished it, seeing my career as part of a greater tradition. Schwarzer deftly gathers threads from many sources, weaving together a beautiful, inspiring tapestry of museums. Perhaps what is most fun about this book is that you’ll find your own history here... waiting in line as a teenager to see King Tut, going on a field trip to see Juno the Transparent Woman at the Cleveland Health Education Museum, or recognizing a favorite diorama from these richly illustrated pages.

Schwarzer clearly loves museums, warts and all, and she showcases how museums and interpretive sites have served America by saving our culture, teaching hundreds of thousands of children, showcasing diversity, and healing spirits after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The book is organized into five sections.

The Introduction places museum work into the context of the last century. Don’t skip this, as it’s a fascinating look at how museums reflected changes in American life and culture over each decade. Educational theory, social movements, wars, race relations, conservatism—all are reflected in the story of American museums.

In The Building, we learn that many museums started out in reclaimed spaces like aircraft hangars or fire stations, before moving on to grander buildings. Schwarzer explains why some older museums have such forbidding architecture; I will never see the movie Rocky again without thinking about the story behind those famous steps. Over the years, buildings were influenced by architects, beginning with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in 1959.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, first known documented case of "museum fatigue!"

The Collection covers the spectrum from dedicated curators to egomaniacal obsessive collectors. One of the most memorable stories is of curator Alice Eastwood. On the morning of the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, she rushed from her home in Berkeley, across the bay to the California Academy of Sciences. Despite the building being partially collapsed and burning, she rigged up a pulley system and rescued over 1,000 botanical specimens and records before the building was completely destroyed. Perhaps a non-museum person would think her crazy, but I know a number of dedicated people I can picture doing this.

Collections reflect a predisposition in the collector—to showcase their ego, to bring forward a type of art they think is important, or to prove a theory. Collecting reflects cultural trends: Native American arts were first collected by museums, then reclaimed by their rightful tribal owners. Nazi looting in WWII became the basis for provenance research and laws to protect rightful ownership. In recent years, collections have made a shift to documenting and collecting current objects and popular culture.

The Exhibition is all about context. This chapter traces the evolution of many museum display techniques we now take for granted. World’s fairs and expositions brought us life groups and nature dioramas. Museums became places to see faraway lands and period rooms. The 60s brought us hands-on exhibits, as Frank Oppenheimer built the Exploratorium and Michael Spock took over the Boston Children’s Museum. I wish I could still visit some of the exhibits Schwarzer describes (on rats, Harlem, and drug use), as I can see how radical they were. The last portion of this chapter takes us from the blockbuster (King Tut) to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is one of the first fully narrative museum experiences, using theater techniques to tell its story.

The last chapter is People and Money. We see how training and scholarship developed in the emerging profession of museum work. People began to share resources, exhibition techniques, and create a code of ethics. I especially liked the admonition against playing practical jokes in the original 1925 code!

At the close of the book, Schwarzer has chosen an image of Jefferson Davis’ historic home Beauvoir on the Mississippi coast, nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The hand-painted sign reads, “Halftime score: Katrina 1, Beauvoir 0. But the game is not over yet!” Museums will go on, despite natural disasters, despite funding cutbacks. And they will go on primarily because of the remarkable people who work in them.

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