A Word About Museums, The Nation, July 27, 1865 (Complete)

Despite Barnum's many bids for respectability, New York City's elite citizens regarded the American Museum with great contempt. This unsigned article, which appeared in The Nation two weeks after the American Museum was destroyed by fire, derided Barnum's establishment for its chaotic collections, fake science, "vulgar" theatrical presentations, and "vicious and degraded" crowds. Comparing the American Museum unfavorably to its British counterparts, the article argues that New York should have a true museum, "a place of public instruction as well as of public enjoyment," perhaps located in the newly built Central Park. (In fact, the American Museum of Natural History was established at the edge of Central Park in 1871.) The Nation was a magazine founded in 1865 by reform-minded Protestant elites, and it reached a small but influential audience nationwide.


       Barnum’s Museum is gone at last. It has fallen before that conflagration with which it has often been threatened, and which it has more than once barely escaped. The children will miss an accustomed place of amusement for their Saturday vacations. The occasional visitors to the city from the "rural districts" will no longer yield to its irresistible attractions. The worst and most corrupt classes of our people must seek some new place of resort, and other opportunities of meeting one another. A most dangerous man-trap is removed and without loss of human life. These four considerations make the sober citizen of New York hesitate whether to regret this burning and destruction or not.

       But there is another consideration. Were the lovers of curiosities–whether of natural history or of human ingenuity or of historical association–the more pleased by the existence of the collections which are now destroyed, or more insulted by their insufficiency, disorder, neglected condition, and obviously secondary importance? It is one thing to love shells and minerals, and to enjoy collections of them, but quite another to enjoy every collection of them. The more truly one loves a collection well arranged, the more he will be offended by a chaotic, dusty, dishonored collection. The more one loves the order and system of scientific enquiry, the more he will feel personally injured by disorder and lack of system among the materials of scientific enquiry. The more one aspires to neatness, exactness, and care in his own private "cabinet," the more he will revolt at slovenliness, in a larger and more public museum. And it is probable that no class of the community was less satisfied with the museum of Mr. Barnum than that class for which it would seem to have been originally intended.

       This class is not an unimportant or even a small one. The host of readers whose favorite reading is natural science, the armies of listeners to lectures on geology, that large proportion of our boys and young men who collect and study "specimens" of minerals, all belong to it. The profoundly scientific are not those who care for public museums, unless containing this or that treasure. The frequenters of museums are those who cannot themselves give much time or means to the collection, classification, and study of specimens, but who read in the evenings, and would gladly see by day a larger number and a greater variety of helps to understand than their own limited time has sufficed to discover–than their own limited means have sufficed to procure. There are thousands of these amateur students, whose amateur studies are not to be despised even by the profounder scholar. These would visit the lost museum rarely, early in the morning when no disreputable crowd was thronging it, looking along the crammed and disordered shelves in the hope of lighting on something which they wished to see, finding it or not as the blind deities of chance might order. Without scientific arrangement, without a catalogue, without attendants, without even labels, in very many instances, the heterogeneous heap of "curiosities," valuable and worthless well mixed together, could not attract our students very often to detain them long.

       This class of visitors was never wholly ignored in the advertisements which announced to the charms of Barnum’s Museum. The "million of curiosities" were mentioned, and their scientific value hinted at. These curiosities were never, so far as we are aware, turned out of the building to make room for fat women, giants, dwarfs, glass-blowers, mermaids, learned seals, and dog-shows. The aquaria had a certain attraction for the intellegent, and, in almost any other place, would have been worth frequent visits. Dog-shows in themselves are harmless and not without interest. We desire to give the late "American Museum" all the credit it deserves. For it needs it all. Its memory is not pleasant. It pandered to the most foolish curiosity and to the most morbid appetite for the marvelous. The most gross deceptions were shamelessly resorted to to cause a week’s wonder and to swell the week’s receipts. The "Lecture Room"–once a sort of "lyceum" hall, latterly a minor theatre in look and character–furnished for the entertainment of its patrons the most vulgar sensation dramas of the day. Its patrons were suitably entertained. It has been many years since a citizen could take his wife or his daughter to see a play on that stage.

       That respectable people never went to this so-called museum we do not assert. There were hours in the day when the halls were nearly empty; and, where certain shells, stuffed birds, and Indian relics are, there is always something to see. But we hold that the class of students of whom we have spoken deserve better mental fare than this dreary refectory could afford.

       It is in behalf of this class that we ask for a real museum. It is in behalf of all classes of the community, except that vicious and degraded one by which the late "American Museum" was largely monopolized, that we ask the community for a building and for collections that shall be worthy of the name so sadly misapplied. Movseion, museum, musee; [accent mark of first ‘e’] the word seems full of honorable meaning in every language but our own, and with reason. Home of the Muses, it means, and is akin to "music" and "musing," and to "amusement," too, which is a good word with a good meaning. Collections of animals belong to it, indeed, both living and prepared, collections of minerals and shells, of historical and personal relics, and not only these, but collections of representatives of all the arts, both industrial and decorative, fine art and artisanship. All those valuable things which men do not consume but keep (money, of course, as it has no value except to represent value, is not in itself a valuable thing, and is not included in our statement) have a home in a museum. And "American," "The American Museum!" when that name is again written across the front of a building, let it be a building worthy in itself and in its contents of the honorable and responsible rank which, by taking that name, it assumes.

       The British Museum is a national institution, founded and supported by the revenues and the government of an empire. The American Museum of the future will be such another, and even more worthily lodged. It would be good taste if all local institutions, whether belonging to individuals, to companies, to cities, or to States, would adopt names less inappropriate to their natures. But as long as we have American institutes of various kinds, and American companies of many sorts, all incorporated under State laws and limited to their spheres of action by State boundaries, such observance of fitness as we might desire we certainly cannot hope for. Let New York City, then, create for itself an "American Museum." And let the thing itself be not unworthy of the name it rashly assumes.

       By the perseverance and the intelligence of some, aided by a series of happy accidents, New York obtained a park, which was put into the hands of good managers and ingenious and conscientious artists, and was carried on by them to such a point of quasi completion that it can hardly be spoiled now, and is likely to remain for ever, to cause posterity to doubt the truth of the future historian’s account of misgovernment and corruption in New York in the nineteenth century. Let us try to make out descendents still more incredulous on this point. Let us have a place of public instruction as well as of public enjoyment. Perhaps in the neighborhood of the Central Park itself would be the best place for it; let us establish it there, and try to draw encouragement and a stimulus to exertion from our beautiful neighbor.

       Nearly every one who has travelled in Europe remembers something of European museums, even though it be but a shadowy image of them that his mind retains. Something of the wonders contained in that sombre temple in Great Russell Street, and something of the artistic treasures "put out of sight under the shadowy vaults of Kensington;" something of the Louvre and the Garden of Plants; something of the Green Vaults of Dresden, of the half-score museums of Berlin, and of the various Sammlungen of Munich–remains to help furnish forth everybody’s pleasant reminiscences of his European trip. But perhaps there are few who have thought of this, that a museum should include, to be perfect–that any museum may include–all the different collections of all the different kinds. As a good example, more apt to be known to our readers than another, let us take the national collections in London.

       The British Museum contains the following collections: 1st, the collection of manuscripts, to guard which the "Trustees of the British Museum" were first incorporated in 1753, and which was first exhibited in 1759; 2d, the library, at first small, increased to many times its original size by bequest of George IV., and now the second library in Europe in size, and the first in practical value–open to the public under wise restrictions, nearly six hundred thousand volumes strong, furnished with the best reading-room in the world, and rich in a world of curiosities and artistic treasures; 3d, the collections of natural history, divided into zoology, fossils, minerals, and botany, magnificent in every department and subdivision, and unequalled in many; 4th, the collection of portraits of sovereigns and famous men, now hung on the walls of the zoological galleries; 5th, the collection of antiquities–Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and British–including in its glorious assembling together of riches the famous Elgin Marbles, the Ninevite and other sculptures of Layard’s and Rich’s discovery, and the best collection in Europe of the oldest art of all, the art of Egypt; 6th, the ethnographical collection. These are under one roof, not large enough now to cover aright the overgrown and still growing collections.

       Not far to the west of the British Museum is that ugly building in Trafalgar Square of which one-half is devoted to the Royal Academy of Arts and the other half to the "National Gallery–Foreign Schools." This collection of pictures, but a few years inferior to the collection of any great European capitals, has been enlarged within a few years, by great watchfulness and lavish expense, to respectable size and immense value. The English pictures, or part of them, were once in the same galleries, but they have gone still further west.

       The "National Gallery–British School" is housed at South Kensington, in the upper story of an unpretending and purely utilitarian building of iron, or series of buildings rather, which bears the local, alliterative, but very appropriate name, "The Brompton Boilers." This name, Brompton, contended with the name of its neighbor village, South Kensington, for the honor of entitling the new region of the expanding metropolis and the national museum is contained. South Kensington has won, but the rival name is preserved in the popular appellation of the range of ugly buildings which are so fair within.

       In the lower story of this edifice is arranged the "Museum of Ornamental Art." Into a minute description of this we have not space to enter. It is new–the creation of a half-score of years–an embodiment of the newly developed ambition of the British people and Parliament to be cherishers and patrons of the fine arts–made as private collections are made, by purchase in open market, but made with the rapidity and ease coming of an exhaustless purse and a resolute will–growing more rapidly every year; not in every respect well contrived, but already containing a splendid museum within itself, and destined soon to be developed into a near approach to completion.

       Such are the national collections. Besides these, there is at Sydenham Crystal Palace a great gallery of casts from sculpture, ancient and mediaeval, and from architectural sculptured ornament, which, or the like of which, should belong to the Government, and probably will at some future time. The famous collection of living animals in Regent’s Park belongs to the Zoological Society, but answers the purposes of a national collection in every respect except in the charge of a fee of entrance. To all the others is now to be added the contents of the old India House, a treasury of rarities which a few years ago, with the dissolution of the East India Company, passed into the hands of the Government. So the museum of London is very widely scattered, and lacks as yet worthy buildings to contain it properly. The English, perhaps, are willing to wait until their present labors in search of a good national architecture shall have been crowned with success. Their experiments in public buildings have compared but poorly with the very excellent private architectural work which has been done in Great Britain, and when, not long since, they were on the point of getting a really good building in London, the present venerable Premier put a stop to all that undertaking. Therefore it is cause for rejoicing that so many of the national collections have only temporary homes.

       New York may have its choice of departments, and make collections of any kind. A good collection in any department is a work either of much money or of much time; and a very good collection requires both. New York can better afford to give money than time, for her good collections, to begin with, for New York wants her museum at once.

       There is talk of a joint stock company which proposes to have a museum and to pay a large profit in money to stockholders. It may be doubted whether a joint stock company can best do such work; whether the sum of three hundred thousand dollars is money enough to do it with; Whether this particular enterprise, if successful, will give us what we want, or not rather another undertaking like Mr. Barnum’s of yore, which Mr. Barnum himself, also in the field, will delve one yard below and blow to the moon–and then buy out. There is money enough to be had which will not seek pecuniary interest, intellect enough to be had, and experience enough to establish such a museum as we need, if only these three–money, intelligence, and experience–will come together and understand each other. Let New York beware lest Philadelphia and Boston should step in before her and use the intelligence, the experience, the opportunity, the well stocked markets, and some part of the money which she should secure.

       By statute the New York Historical Society is authorized to form a Museum of Antiquities and Science and a Gallery of Art, and is given for this purpose the old arsenal building in the Central Park, with as much ground as the Commissioners of the Central Park will allow. The Society, moreover, has authority either to use the building as it is, to alter it, or to remove it and build anew. The use of this present of future building is given for the use specified for ever, to revert tot he Park Commission only on the removal of the collections forming the Museum or Gallery.

       It is well to remember that gift, for it is out of this gift and by the influence and position of the Historical Society that such a museum as we want may perhaps be reared. The Society has already a good museum of Egyptian antiquities, a few Assyrian sculptures, historical relics, a library rich in one department, and among its pictures perhaps three or four of a certain value. It is strong in numbers and in the social standing of its members. It certainly could not require an unreasonable on the part of such a body to raise what money is wanted and begin the so much needed work.

       A society is incorporated, its incorporation dating from 1860, and is granted a portion of land in the Central Park for the formation of botanical and zoological gardens. This society, which has honorable and well-known names in the list of its incorporators, may perhaps be expected to act for us if the Historical Society will not. That more energy is needed in the action of the latter body than it showed in the matter of the Jarves Collection is evident, and that they will show this energy is not certain. We may well look at other companies, and consider what further means may be employed to secure the end we so much desire.

       But of one thing let us be certain. No individual or stock company which may undertake to form and manage a museum as a way of making money will be of any great or permanent service to the community. Let those who are disposed to aid any of these movements remember this, that the efforts of an ingenuous showman to attract popular attention and make money rapidly are not likely to accrue to popular enlightenment. It would not seem well to such a showman to spend money, time and thought to make valuable antiquarian and scientific collections, classify and catalogue them accurately, and build a fitting and permanent building to contain them. Perhaps the British Museum, charging twenty-five cents admission fee, would take in less money in a year that did Mr. Barnum’s old museum at the same price. Let the would-be stockholder invest his money in a proper enterprise, properly guarded, and take dividends for his reward. Of his abundance let him give to the foundation of a real museum for his own enlightenment, the good of his children, and the honor and benefit of the community.

See also:

A Word About Museums, The Nation, August 10, 1865 (Abridged)

Mr. Barnum on Museums, The Nation, August 10, 1865