Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review - Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence

Book review number two.  As I prepare for the upcoming core curriculum workshop Museums 101, I've been delving into the history of museums.  The book Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence by Edward P. Alexander has been an interesting and helpful resource.

First published in 1983, Edward Alexander's book is still considered to be a definitive work on the history of museums.  In his words, "museums are learning centers with a long and vital tradition of cultural contributions.  A study of the masters may well reveal to present-day professionals a stronger and better-defined profession that may be adapted and developed, to help shape better museums - and museum professionals."   

The table of contents reads like a who's who of the museum world:
  1. Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum
  2. Charles Willson Peale, Philadelphia Museum
  3. Dominique Vivant Denon, the Louvre
  4. William Jackson Hooker, Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew
  5. Henry Cole, Victoria & Albert Museum
  6. Ann Pamela Cunningham, George Washington's Mount Vernon
  7. Wilhelm Bode, Berlin's Museum Island
  8. Artur Hazelius, Skansen
  9. George Brown Goode, the Smithsonian
  10. Carl Hagenbeck, Tierpark Hagenbeck
  11. Oskar von Miller, Deutsches Museum
  12. John Cotton Dana, Newark Museum
Alexander investigates the motivations of the people who were instrumental in establishing these organizations and moving museology from "cabinets of curiousity" that were only available to the social elite, to institutions accessible to the entire public.  As public institutions, these museums were not only concerned about study and education, but about enjoyment and social responsibility.  They wanted the visitor experience to be active and engaging - memorable for more than just seeing a funny-looking antique behind a glass exhibit case.

What struck me about this book is the forward thinking of the "masters".  Not only were they ahead of their time 100-200 years ago, but in some museum cases they are still ahead of their time.  They recognized that putting a bunch of stuff on permanent display doesn't make for a good museum, and were always troubleshooting in creative ways to keep the doors open and the visitors visiting.

While some of their practices fall far short of our current ethical and other standards of practice, we can all learn a few lessons from these 12 innovators:
1. Community buy-in is key.
2. Children are interested in history.
3. Exhibits need to change on a regular basis.
4. Thinking outside the box is an absolute must.
5. Improving our museum practices should be a perpetual pursuit.

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