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

Two weeks after the fire that destroyed the American Museum, The Nation magazine published a long article (an abridged version appears below) that dripped with contempt for Barnum and his former museum. Reflecting the views of many New York City elites, the unsigned article derided Barnum's establishment for its chaotic collections, fake science, "vulgar" theatrical presentations, and "vicious and degraded" crowds. It called for New York to have a true museum, "a place of public instruction as well as of public enjoyment," and suggested the newly built Central Park as a likely location. In fact, the American Museum of Natural History was established in 1871 at the very site suggested in this article. 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 intelligent, 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 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.

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 . . . 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. . . .

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.

. . .

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 (Complete)

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