Science Museums in Transition: Cultures of Display in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America ed. by Carin Berkowitz and Bernard Lightman
The history of museums has enjoyed amazing growth in the last few years. To cite one milestone, the Museum History Journal is celebrating its tenth anniversary this [End Page 216] year. Science Museums in Transition: Cultures of Display in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America is an excellent addition in this literature that will likely, and sadly, be read mostly by historians of science and science museums. It deserves a wider audience. It speaks to current trends in the historiography of popular science as "knowledge in transition" and "science as spectacle" but it is also an excellent gateway work for anyone interested in beginning to understand how science museums existed alongside other types of museums and entertainments during the nineteenth century in Britain and the United States. Although it speaks almost exclusively about science museums, the struggles and issues involved will be instantly appreciated both by scholars in other fields and museum professionals in the twenty-first century.
This edited volume is the result of a conference held at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in May 2015 on "Curators, Popularizers, and Showmen: Science in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Exhibitions and Museums." That conference, and this volume, focused on important questions concerning the definitions of museums, collections, exhibitions, education, audience, authority, and other issues important to scientific knowledge and practice in institutions that broadly could be interpreted as being museums. The collection attempts to look at science museums, in all their diverse and messy glory, as institutions of display and performance imbedded in their cultural, political, social, and economic settings. By emphasizing display instead of collections, the authors find a continuum between the various entertainments and displays of the nineteenth century, including science museums, as well as a recognizable evolution from the museum as forum early in the century to the museum as temple by the end of the era.
This volume presents stories and analysis of a wide variety of institutions on either side of the Atlantic. It's a cornucopia of dime museums and academic museums, panoramas, scientific demonstrations and lectures, botanical gardens, dramatic presentations, humbugs and fakes, and mechanic's institutes. All of the essays are solid works of scholarship, but not all seem to support the editor's stated goals of "treating museums as permanent exhibitions" to find "connections to other forms of display and entertainment simultaneously, making them much more than the history of stately buildings calling themselves museums with their purposeful scientific holdings" (1). The opening sections accomplish this goal admirably. Bernard Lightman's essay in the opening section on the Colosseum in Regent's Park London argues that although the institution exhibited scientific displays, those displays competed with art and other displays as well as mere entertainments. Katherine Pandora's essay, "The Permissive Precincts of Barnum's and Goodrich's Museums of Miscellaneity," considers the dime museum impresario P.T. Barnum and Samuel Griswold Goodrich, author of popular science books for the young. The analysis offered by each author should resonate with many modern museum professionals. Lightman's essay illustrates an institution where scientifically "serious" displays and demonstrations competed with more popular exhibitions. Pandora more explicitly connects with modern vocabulary when she cites [End Page 217] the work of Barnum as illustrative of the concept of museum as forum. Pandora notes that museums during this period, especially popular museums like Barnum's, were sites where truth and knowledge were negotiated and popular authority was not only valued, but necessary. Ultimately, as later essays in this volume show, museums would succumb to the ideal of museum as temple, where knowledge is passed on from the elite to a passive public. These two essays provide an excellent opening to this collection and its promise of a different perspective on the history of science museums.
Likewise, the section entitled "The Scientist-Showman" gives the modern museum professional much to think about when considering the tension between spectacle, profit, and serious scholarship. Authors Lukas Rieppel and Jeremy Brooker present narratives pitting establishment scientists against scientists who sought to profit from their performances as showmen while still trying to maintain their legitimacy as practicing scientists. Brooker describes men like Henry Morton, John Tyndall, and John Henry Pepper while Lukas Rieppel presents the work of Albert Koch and his "sea monster." The lines between spectacle and "serious science" were still being negotiated in the nineteenth century and the questions of who could or should profit from scientific work was still an open question.
The latter sections of the book, however, begin to look more traditional as the modern research oriented museum run, by elites for a lay public, takes shape. In the section on 'The National Museum," authors Pamela Henson and Caroline Cornish examine the Smithsonian and Kew's Museum of Economic Botany respectively. In the final section, "The Research University," Carin Berkowitz reexamines the work of Joseph Leidy as a center of scientific collaboration, while Sally Gregory Kohlstedt analyzes the role of academic museums as institutions of education and display as well as collecting.
Readers of The Public Historian may, at first blush, find little to interest them from this group of essays that appears to engage mostly the work of historians of science and science museums. However, they will likely recognize the tensions between elite and popular authority, the changing definition of museums from forum to temple, and the space popularizers attempted to make for themselves on the continuum between elite experts and popular entertainers.