I’ve never written a book review here before, but Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain’s Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the 20th Century is a fine place to start. Published in 2014, this fascinating and exhaustively researched volume follows the struggle of natural history museum workers to define the purpose of their institutions. Ultimately, are museums places for exhibits, or places for collections? Rader and Cain chart the internal and external perceptions of natural history museums through time, recounting the people and events that made these institutions what they are. If you have a serious interest in science communication or the history and philosophy of science, Life on Display is a must-read.
Many accounts of the history of museum exhibits (including mine) have placed the transition from cases of specimens with minimal interpretation to audience-centered learning experiences in the latter part of the 20th century. However, Rader and Cain convincingly demonstrate that the seeds for this reform, called the “New Museum Idea”, were planted much earlier. Traditional European museums were places for quiet contemplation, designed by and for the scholarly elite. The new crop of American natural history museums that emerged in the late 19th century were physically modeled after their European forebears, but almost from the get-go their missions were distinctly populist. As early as 1910, museum leaders like Oliver Farrington and Frederic Lucas were using the same rhetoric we use today to sell museums as community resources for lifelong learning. Concerned with the state of science literacy and the increasingly urban experiences of most Americans, these reformers argued that museums could reintroduce the public to nature and hone their skills of observation and deduction.
By modern standards, early expressions of the New Museum Idea were modest. Strict taxonomic organization was loosened to accommodate categories that were meaningful to laypeople, such as “game birds.” Labels that only included the Latin name and date of a specimen’s collection were revised to include information about the behavior and habitat of the organism in question. Illustrations of the life appearance of certain animals and plants were added, and education departments were established to coordinate tours for schoolchildren. However, even these humble reforms could be hotbeds of internal controversy. Some curators insisted that any kind of reproduction – even an illustration – was bound to confuse visitors, and opined that displaying anything less than the complete range of known diversity for a given group was unfathomable.
Contrary to what one might expect, the lines of conflict did not neatly divide curators from administrators and educators. For example, American Museum of Natural History herpetologist Mary Dickerson was a scientist first, but she staunchly advocated for attractive and comprehensible exhibits. Reformers also had differing political agendas. While Dickerson’s camp wanted to use accessible exhibits to inspire young people to appreciate nature and the need for conservation, AMNH director Henry Osborn saw public displays as a way to enforce social order among immigrant populations.
By the 1920s, advocates for audience-centered exhibits seemed to have won. In the public eye, the primary purpose of a museum was not research – it was to create ever more impressive displays. In particular, meticulously crafted habitat dioramas became the centerpieces of natural history museums. Although inherently artificial, these little worlds behind glass showcased the splendor of the natural world in a way that rows of carefully organized specimens never could. Children found dioramas particularly approachable, and the museums’ primary audience shifted from scholars to families. Dioramas were also the sort of capital expenditures that attracted donors, and for a time natural history museums fared well nurturing relationships with wealthy philanthropists.
In the interwar period, ongoing ambitions to improve science literacy among the general public birthed a new kind of museum. Carlos Cummings led the way by transforming the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences into one of the first science museums. Here, galleries were organized based on themes and connections, and specimens were utilized to illustrate general ideas. For example, separate halls of invertebrate zoology, ornithology, and mammology were combined in an exhibit that focused on evolution and ecology. After World War II, the newly established science museums also began to focus on technology and industry. Despite a laudable emphasis on practical science, these exhibits often came with significant bias. Corporate sponsorship of energy and agricultural displays was standard practice, as was outright jingoism in exhibits about aviation and space travel.
As science museums continued to carve out their own audience-centered niche, the legacy natural history museums actually regressed to their pre-New Museum Idea state. To me, this is the most fascinating part of Rader and Cain’s narrative. Curators essentially reclaimed their museums as research institutions, letting exhibits languish as they focused on collections and scholarly publications. Smithsonian entomologist Waldo Schmitt typified the mindset of mid-century curators when he declared exhibits to be nothing more than “show windows for displaying our wares and accomplishments” (quoted in Rader and Cain, pg. 170). To this generation of scientists, “outreach” meant participating in a public “ID day” once a year – anything more was beneath them. Museums compensated by hiring more dedicated exhibit and education staff, but without curatorial support these institutions remained decidedly retrograde.
Rader and Cain devote an entire chapter to the disruption caused by Manhattan Project physicist-turned-educator Frank Oppenheimer and his San Francisco Exploratorium. A playground-like open space filled with modular interactive activities, the Exploratorium completely upended the public’s understanding of what a museum could be. The exhibits were designed with rigorous adherence to the scientific method in mind, but they were also active, alive, and more than a little chaotic. The Exploratorium resonated with the counter-culture trends of the late 1960s, and natural history museums saw their visitation plummet as families turned to Oppenheimer and his imitators. Legacy museums insisted that these new science centers weren’t real museums (they didn’t have collections!), but now that the public had a choice they were voting with their feet.
Natural history museums admitted that they had taken the public for granted, but during the 80s and 90s they compensated a little too hard. Following the lead of science centers, many natural history museums turned to business and marketing specialists to fill leadership roles. They branded themselves as tourist attractions, added play areas and gimmicky technology, and used relentlessly-marketed blockbuster exhibits to keep people coming back. Robot dinosaurs and flight simulators heralded a sad decline in museum scholarship, and what’s more, the museums all started to look the same. They sourced popular exhibits from the same vendors, showed the same IMAX movies, and stocked their gift shops with the same merchandise. In many ways, the edutainment boom seemed like a race to the lowest common denominator.
Although Rader and Cain stop at the end of the 20th century, they touch on recent trends that have helped put natural history museums back on track. Museums are still hurting for funding, and often rely on blockbusters and concessions to keep their doors open. However, in-house researchers are once again taking an active role in the public faces of their institutions. Scientists work with professional designers and educators to create informative displays that also utilize lessons in showmanship learned from blockbuster exhibits. Some museums are working harder to emphasize the importance of their collections, and making them more accessible to the public. Nevertheless, the fact that these collaborations revolve around public interpretation in the first place leads Rader and Cain to conclude that New Museum Idea advocates ultimately won. Exhibits, not collections, are now the heart and soul of natural history museums. Whether or not that is a good thing is, of course, open to debate.
The scope of Rader and Cain’s research is breathtaking – the book includes 164 pages of notes and references. The authors have plumbed the depths of museum archives and despite the breadth of their subject, they have emerged with a clear narrative thread and a convincing conclusion. One thing I found lacking, however, was discussion of the role of paleontology in the history of 20th century museums. Clearly I have a bit of a bias, but Life on Display contains only a few passing references to fossil displays. This seems like a critical omission, both because paleontology is so integral to the public’s understanding of what natural history museums offer and because the basic format of a fossil mount exhibit has remained remarkably consistent since the 19th century. Clearly that is the subject for another book (yes, yes, I’m working on it!).
All in all, Life on Display is an extremely readable and informative account of an oft-overlooked realm of science education. It will be a regular reference for me, and I highly recommend it.
Rader, K.A. and Cain, V.E.M. 2014. Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.