While completing some research, I discovered this article by renowned Alabama historian and archivist Peter A Brannon the third director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History (1882-1967) which was evidently a speech he gave on the importance of historical museums. It was printed in The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 07, No. 02, in the Summer Issue 1945. In light of recent developments within the state of Alabama concerning ‘cut back’s in various state programs, it is important to remember his transcribed words below about the reasons we need to preserve, restore and maintain Alabama’s historical items and places.
THE PLACE OF THE MUSEUM IN THE LIFE OF AMERICA
By Peter A. Brannon
(Peter A. Brannon, Military Archivist in the Alabama State Department of Archives and History has for many years had a deep interest in all phases of Alabama history and has been for thirty-five years connected with the Department. He edited for a number of years a bulletin; dealing with our Indian life, Arrow Points and has also written on other subjects, contributing a Sunday article to the Montgomery Advertiser, Through the Years. On account of lacking sufficient space in the Quarterly for a more extended account of museums in Alabama. Mr. Brannon could not give an account of the fine objects in the historical museum of this Department. Neither could he give an account of the museum of the First White House of the Confederacy, the Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, nor the proposed museums in Birmingham and in Mobile.)
The Public Museum is not an ancient institution. Lewis Mumford, in his book “The Golden Day”, says: “The Eighteenth Century had in its own phase of sterility converted the curio cabinet of the country house and the loot heap of the ruling dynasty into a public museum”.
America made some contribution to this conversion through the genius of Charles Wilson Peale, a Philadelphia artist, friend of Franklin and Jefferson. He was the first to substitute sculpture for hair-stuffing as a basis for the skins of birds and animals to simulate the specimen’s environment with painted backgrounds, to exhibit insects under microscopes; the first, indeed, to systematize his items in an educational arrangement, and to set up courses of lectures to expound their illustrative value. He spared no pains to cultivate good will. He gave his private (and personal) museum a quasi-public status by organizing a distinguished “Board of Visitors”, and installed his collections in Independence Hall. The idea was soon followed in New York City, New Haven, Boston, Albany, Baltimore, the leading cities of the day, and he saw other cultural beginnings along that line during his lifetime. Naturalists like Alexander Wilson profited by studying specimens in these museums. Artists were inspired to greater efforts through these comparisons. By the example of this modest beginning, available American collections gravitated to colleges and public institutions, and became of use in teaching and research.
Unless orderly arranged, with artistic expression or chronological thought, museums have no particular teaching value, which is the modern concept of what a museum should be used for. It must be an educational institution, be it an art, science, historical or industrial museum. Even the most up-to-date business firms are coming around to the theory of museum presentation. Museums have libraries, and the larger libraries have at least one or two display cases, but it would be better to separate the two efforts as do our more progressive historical societies and State controlled cultural groups.
Recognized as one of the foremost, if not the leading, teaching museums of the day is the Rochester, New ‘York, Museum of Arts and Sciences, developed by Dr. Arthur C. Parker, founder of and, until recent months, its Director. He was the first to effectively dramatize his displays. Period rooms and a vigorous originality, as well as a discriminating sense of the significant, make that institution an American model.
The successful museums must have a living appeal that stimulates the imagination and stirs the intellect. Museums that attract visitors—and financial support—must discover and use the simplest principle that a good showman uses; but the displayed material must be so manipulated as to serve a useful end. An active institution presents values that attract youth as well as maturity. The visitor must be thrilled with what he sees. He must be impressed sufficiently with the feeling and thought that he is a part of the great drama of life. He should be made to imagine his personal participation in that past as pictured, and that he might have been one of the actors.
Displays provide opportunity for discovery
Sometimes it is best not to tell everything, but to provide there in the display the opportunity to get the joy of discovery. When the artistry of the dramatist is employed, then the museum is successful.
A museum is not a repository of dead things. A mummy is a curious item. A piece of period furniture is not always pretty, even though it shows the handwork of an artisan. Modern museums, particularly historical museums, teach by transmitting lessons of the dead past to make an appreciation of the living present. Proper labels are of utmost importance, for they explain the significance of the exhibit. A living museum must use charts, graphs, maps, pictures, literal illustrations to more properly engross attention ; these with few, not massed piles of actual display material. The housing cabinets must be good to look at as well as the items inside them.
Today whole towns are set aside as museums, witness Salem, Massachusetts, of 1630 as restored in Forest River Park at the present town of the name. Concord, Massachusetts, where on April 19, 1775 was fired “that shot heard around the world” is another town dedicated as a living museum of history. The Wayside Inn, a few miles north of Boston, is a typical pioneer illustration of the culture of the day just prior to the American Revolution. In Ford’s Dearborn Village in Michigan is the richest collection of Americana in the world. Here is art, industry, science, and history, collected with no thought as to cost, to present the “picture”, and it is all under one roof insofar as material exhibits are to be considered.
Throughout the United States are restored homes, Indian towns, millsites, and other phases of the life of the people who came, acted, and passed on before our day. The Otis house in Maine; Mount Vernon and much of old Williamsburg in Virginia; Fort Ticonderoga, New York; Moundville, Alabama; Lincoln’s Log Cabin in Kentucky; the Hermitage, near Nashville, in Tennessee; Magnolia Gardens in South Carolina; Independence Hall in Philadelphia; the Stephen Foster home in Bardstown, Kentucky, are a few of the currently titled “living museums”. These memorialize the past, picture life as it was, and illustrate the beauty of the pres’ent (as Magnolia and Bellingrath Gardens), and they demonstrate cultural progress and architectural development by comparison.
We have restored the puebloes of the Southwest. We have set aside as National Forests areas of the Redwoods of California and the Pacific Coast. We have made the Natural Bridge a shrine, largely because George Washington is said to have carved his name high up on the wall. Nine hundred acres, known as the Appomattox Surrender Ground, has been set aside as a National Monument. The New York Central and the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads have set aside space in the Grand Central Terminal station as a Transportation Museum of prints, pictures, tickets, etc.
If historic items sold to the rich, few would enjoy them
Obviously, few of these are “public” museums in the sense of being free, for most of them must be maintained, but they are open and available at a modest admission fee, thus are far more attractive than the average free institution. Even the great museums of America, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Field Museum, the Cincinnati Public Museum, are corporations maintained by memberships, endowments, grants, or foundations (the Carnegie in Pittsburgh for example), making educational and cultural opportunities available to the less fortunate by those who have prospered and seek in such manner to make a contribution looking- to the betterment of the American public.
It might be said that the Mellon Art Gallery in Washington is an example of personal egotistical aggrandizement, but even so, many profit now whereas if these things had been sold to the rich, few would have enjoyed them.
The initial example of all in America, the Smithsonian Institution (embodying the National Museum, the Bureau of American Ethnology, the National Gallery, and allied groups) is really a memorial founded with a few thousand Dollars ($515,000.) left by the will of John Smithson, an Englishman, to the United States of America to establish a fund “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”. Mr. Smithson had in mind something on the order of the British Museum, that greatest of all institutions of learning up to his time. Our Smithsonian Institution, founded by Act of Congress in 1846, has well met the challenge to us made by the donor. While perhaps not comparable in its exhibits of classified items in institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; it has for 100 years conducted explorations throughout the world, made investigations of various and sundry characters, and done research in many subjects. Many of America’s learned men have been members of the staff of the Smithsonian, although at all times being more poorly paid than if they had labored for the privately chartered museums.
Dr. Spencer F. Baird, Dr. William H. Holmes, Dr. Alexander Wetmore, Drk Alix Hrdlska, Dr. Albert S. Gatschet, Dr. Cyrus Thomas, Dr. Frederick Hodge, Dr. J. Owen Dorsey, Dr. Otis Mason, Dr. Walter Hough, Dr. Walter Fewkes, Dr. John R. Swanton, are just a few of the men of that group whose names are recorded high up on that scroll which will preserve for posterity the deeds of America’s famous in the arts, sciences, history, and fields of cultural research. To those who would appreciate the museum more, let me recommend a series of volumes by the Esto Publishing Company titled “Enjoy your Museum”. These volumes cover every phase of the activities of the history and art museums, and our scientific institutions all issue guides, handbooks, bulletins and periodicals to excite interest. They can be acquired at small cost.
Practically all present day museums have auditoriums, and encourage public gatherings, thus seeking visitors, hoping to teach the more. The American Association of Museums, meeting periodically throughout the Country, is an organization which seeks to bring together museum workers that they may by contact with each other develop broader opportunities for the whole public through the experiences of local groups. Be they ever so small and modest in their ambitions, every local museum should affiliate with the National Association, and members of their staffs should attend these meetings.
In conclusion, let me read you excerpts from a report made recently for the Metropolitan:
METROPOLITAN ANNOUNCES POST-WAR BUILDING PROGRAM
New plans for a $10,000,000 Diamond Jubilee building program, to make the Metropolitan Museum of Art a “true people’s museum, free and informal” were announced recently by William Church Osborn, president of the Museum.
Projected in connection with the Metropolitan’s seventy-fifth anniversary, in February, 1947, the reconstruction and expansion program consolidates the proposed new building of the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the organic whole of five-museums-in-one. New radio and television installations will broadcast the Metropolitan’s treasures into every home.
The Metropolitan’s many hundred thousands of art objects, valued at between one-half and one billion dollars, depict 5,000 years of civilization. It is the greatest reservoir of art in the Western Hemisphere. Concurrent with expansion, the Metropolitan will systematically rearrange and present these treasures in a way to make them easier to see, study, and enjoy. Moreover future additions to the collections made possible by the Museum’s purchase funds will be guaranteed a suitable home.
“The Museum’s trustees have worked with New York City’s officials on this program for the last three years,” Mr. Osborn said. Francis Henry Taylor, museum director, pointed out that the Metropolitan is the custodian of treasures fully as catholic and diversified in media and subject matter as those of the Louvre and the Vatican.
“We have developed in less than three generations a framework for an encyclopedic presentation of the creative vision of man, which is almost unique,” he said. “And we are morally obligated to preserve and enhance it.”
Funds from the public
As a first step in realizing these plans the City of New York and the Museum will undertake a complete rehabilitation and renovation of the existing structure. This will be part of the City’s postwar building program. To pay for galleries joining the Whitney Wing to the existing building, the Museum will seek funds from the public.
“This is the first general appeal to the public since the Museum was established,” Mr. Osborn observed. “In less than a man’s lifetime, the Metropolitan has become America’s greatest of all the arts. But by no means has *it reached the point where its trustees and the public can be satisfied. The Metropolitan must now digest its treasures and present them in the manner of 1970, not 1870.”
Amplifying this, Mr. Taylor explained how limitations of space and inflexibility of plant have interfered with an interrelated and complete display of the world’s cultures. This will be overcome in the new plan.
Alabama Footprints Confrontation is a collection of lost and forgotten stories that reveals why and how the confrontation between the Native American population and settlers developed into the Creek-Indian War as well as stories of the bravery and heroism of participants from both sides.
Some stores include:
- Tecumseh Causes Earthquake
- Terrified Settlers Abandon Farms
- Survivor Stories From Fort Mims Massacre
- Hillabee Massacre
- Threat of Starvation Men Turn To Mutiny
- Red Eagle After The War