- 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...