In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

166 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadienne d etudes amertcames whether or not it fits the author's schema. These are minor flaws, however, in a book which makes such a positive contribution to reinterpreting American diplomacy during the crucial Roosevelt era. Marian C. McKenna University of Calgary Steven Conn. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 293 and illustrations . In this engaging and gracefully written book, Steven Conn undertakes to show that the museums of the Victorian period represented a distinctive "object-based epistemology" that held sway in America roughly through the first quarter of the twentieth century. He gives us both less and more than promised, failing adequately to support this ambitious claim, but providing insightful and wide-ranging examinations of museums of natural history, anthropology, art, history, and commerce at a time when museums rivalled universities as centres of the production of knowledge. Conn positions himself against "Foucauldian" interpretations of museums, which he deems excessively interested in power at the expense of the ways in which museums shaped knowledge. (The stance is unusual for cultural historians, who are more commonly accused of eliding power relations.) It is one measure of the difficulties Conn faces that, despite his intentions, power figures prominently in his account: as he points out, the museum classification schemes he explicates imply an evolutionary-progressive view of history, in which Western man stands as the highest development. Beside drawing our attention to the legitimation of power, this ubiquitous tendency also calls into question Conn's label for the eloquence of Victorian objects. As Conn himself puts it, "objects had inherent meaning, but that meaning could only be revealed by the way they were presented in museum exhibits" (23). Meanings that emerge only through classification can hardly be said to inhere in the objects themselves, so a "classification-based epistemology" would be a more apt description of the phenomenon at hand. The omission of any sustained treatment of museum professionals' encounters with objects suggests another alteration to Conn's label. How did objects speak to the scholars charged with classifying and arranging them? By BookReviews 167 limiting himself to the effects these professionals intended to produce in audiences through proper display, Conn delineates a system of pedagogy rather than one of epistemology. In other respects as well, the notion of a Victorian "object-based epistemology" hovers beyond the reach of the evidence. Coupled with the museum-building boom begun during the Gilded Age, "the widespread Victorian fascination with 'stuff' of all kinds" (13) does indeed suggest a special role for objects in the Victorian imagination. Documenting such an epistemology, though, requires examining how objects functioned incontexts other than museums, a task Conn does not undertake, despite his familiarity with current work on collections and department stores. And even assuming the narrower claim of a distinctive epistemology based on museum objects, a significant gap in the argument is the failure to discuss museum labels. Conn cites the Smithsonian's George Brown Goode repeatedly, but ignores Goode's description of "an efficient educational museum" as "a collection of instructive labels, each illustrated by a well-selected specimen." Despite these drawbacks, the book is of great value as an examination of museum practices and their intellectual foundations. Not the least of its virtues is its primary focus on Philadelphia, "the only city in the country where museumgoers could see the encyclopedia set of museums Goode envisioned" (248), a focus that forcefully reminds cultural historians and their readers of life outside New York. Moreover, considering an array of museum types has allowed Conn to find patterns that elude scholars who specialize more narrowly. Historians of science and of social science, for instance, have shown how natural history and anthropology evolved in universities , but Conn is the first to point out the ways these migrations fit into a general battle for intellectual authority between universities and museums. Conn has also rescued from relative obscurity fascinating institutions such as Philadelphia's Commercial Museum. Founded around the collections assembled for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the museum used objects to produce "an intellectual architecture for an American commercial empire," as well...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 166-168
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.