Boas and the Popular Museum

I discovered a neat, fairly new blog dedicated to museums today, S.J. Redman’s Museum Madness. Redman’s most recent post addresses an interesting and (for me, anyway) new aspect of Boas’ museum work, his populism.

Most of us are familiar with the relationship between Boas and museums — the ethnographic exhibits at the Columbian Expo in 1893, his early curating work at the Field Museum, his move to the American Museum of Natural History and his involvement with the Jessup Expedition to the Pacific Northwest and Arctic coast that stocked much of the AMNH’s collection. Along with his 1889 article On Alternating Sounds (AnthroSource link), Boas’ critique of exhibition schemas that reflected the prevalent evolutionary beliefs of the time were a crucial early step towards his later cultural relativism, as was his insistence on supplementing material artifacts (shields, pots, spearheads, matates, etc.) with folklore, songs, and other non-material “artificats” (recipes, instructions, game rules, etc.) in order to create a fuller understanding of a culture “from the native’s point of view” (rather than as a pitstop on the march towards us-ness).

Redman focuses here on Boas’ role as a museum professional, though — not as an anthropologist. I hadn’t known how committed Boas was to the idea of the popular museum — the museum as a place of leisure for the masses, as well as for their intellectual and moral edification.

Boas writes several fascinating passages in the article[“Some Principles of Museum Administration”, 1907] that almost read as though they were written within the last decade. “In his (Dorsey’s) discussion he assumes that the essential object of a large museum must be research, not instruction, without however discussing the validity of this fundamental assumption.”

Boas’ continues, “Museums may serve three objects. They may be institutions designed to furnish healthy entertainment, they may be intended for instruction and they may be intended for the promotion of research.”

One of my favorite passages follows the preceding quote:

The value of the museum as a resort for popular entertainment must not be underrated, particularly in a large city, where every opportunity that is given to the people to employ their leisure time in healthy and stimulating surroundings should be developed, where every attraction that counteracts the influence of the saloon and of the race-track is of great social importance. If a museum is to serve this end, it must, first of all be entertaining, and try to instill by the kind of entertainment offered some useful stimulant.

It should be noted that the Victorian reformist drive to substitute museums for saloons was met by an equally strong push on the part of the working classes for admission to the museums. The British Museum in London had faced mobs of workers demanding entrance when they unveiled their Assyrian collections, and were eventually forced to put the most popular carvings behind glass to prevent them from being damaged by the high traffic. This was, as Redman notes, a big change for the Victorian-era museum — the British Museum’s staff and supporters had fought to keep the collections the exclusive domain of researchers, and for years the Museum was only open to unscheduled visitors for a couple of hours each week, who were led through by a curator. Across the park from the AMNH, the Met drew huge crowds of immigrants, if the sociologists who posted themselves at the entrance and did headcounts based on dress and physiognomy can be at all trusted.

Unlike today, many turn-of-the-century curators weren’t worrying themselves about how to get an audience in, they were worried about how to keep an audience out. That’s where Boas’ comments come in. The “Dorsey” the above comments respond to was George Dorsey, a curator at the Field Museum, who had written unkindly about an AMNH exhibition he saw as an attempt to “popularize” its subject. Boas rejects this logic, arguing not just that museums can be entertaining but that they should be, and that this function is every bit as important as the research goals that Dorsey and many others at the time stressed as the mission of the museum.

Every time I think I know the basic outline of Boas’ life, something pops up to surprise me. Though I knew about Boas’ commitment to worker rights and popular eduation (unless my memory is on the fritz, he taught classes at the New School when the NS was still aimed at bringing education to the masses), I hadn’t know the depth of this commitment, especially in relation to his museum work. I’ll look forward to more interesting stuff to come from Redman.