A History Of Museums, 'The Memory Of Mankind'

Correction July 31, 2009

Statements by Kevin Guilfoile Stephen Asma were drawn from NPR interviews done in 2006 and 2002, respectively. They should have been identified as such in the audio for this story. The text has been corrected to reflect the timing.

A young man with a mohawk walks in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the Smithsonian. i i

hide captionA young visitor tours the dinosaur exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in 1989.

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A young man with a mohawk walks in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the Smithsonian.

A young visitor tours the dinosaur exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in 1989.

Renato Rotolo/AFP/Getty Images
American showman P.T. Barnum and Commodore Nutt, circa 1862. i i

hide captionAmerican showman P.T. Barnum (left) and Commodore Nutt, pictured circa 1862. Nutt was "exhibited" at Barnum's American Museum in New York, which Barnum claimed attracted 15,000 visitors per day.

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American showman P.T. Barnum and Commodore Nutt, circa 1862.

American showman P.T. Barnum (left) and Commodore Nutt, pictured circa 1862. Nutt was "exhibited" at Barnum's American Museum in New York, which Barnum claimed attracted 15,000 visitors per day.

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The Smithsonian 'castle' pictured in 1867, and as it appears today. i i

hide captionThe Smithsonian "castle" on the National Mall, (pictured above in 1867 and below in the present day), was the first Smithsonian building — construction began in 1847.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Smithsonian 'castle' pictured in 1867, and as it appears today.

The Smithsonian "castle" on the National Mall, (pictured above in 1867 and below in the present day), was the first Smithsonian building — construction began in 1847.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
A group of schoolchildren sketch a stuffed koala bear and baby in 1938. i i

hide captionA group of schoolchildren sketch a stuffed koala bear and baby under the guidance of a museum zoologist in 1938.

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A group of schoolchildren sketch a stuffed koala bear and baby in 1938.

A group of schoolchildren sketch a stuffed koala bear and baby under the guidance of a museum zoologist in 1938.

Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Schoolchildren visiting the Junior Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art peer at slides. i i

hide captionSchoolchildren visiting New York's Junior Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art watch slides of artists at work in the 1950s.

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Schoolchildren visiting the Junior Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art peer at slides.

Schoolchildren visiting New York's Junior Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art watch slides of artists at work in the 1950s.

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The Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum at night. i i

hide captionArchitect Daniel Libeskind says that his idea for the design of the Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum came to him during a plane ride over the Rocky Mountains.

Jeff Wells/Courtesy Denver Art Museum
The Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum at night.

Architect Daniel Libeskind says that his idea for the design of the Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum came to him during a plane ride over the Rocky Mountains.

Jeff Wells/Courtesy Denver Art Museum
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. i i

hide captionThe Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian was built steps from the U.S. Capitol on the National Mall. The golden limestone museum sits in simulated wetlands and was modeled to evoke natural rock formations.

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The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian was built steps from the U.S. Capitol on the National Mall. The golden limestone museum sits in simulated wetlands and was modeled to evoke natural rock formations.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Will Murphy, 7, inspects the teeth of a Theropod dinosaur at the Melbourne Museum. i i

hide captionWill Murphy, 7, inspects the teeth of a Theropod dinosaur at the Melbourne Museum.

William West/AFP/Getty Images
Will Murphy, 7, inspects the teeth of a Theropod dinosaur at the Melbourne Museum.

Will Murphy, 7, inspects the teeth of a Theropod dinosaur at the Melbourne Museum.

William West/AFP/Getty Images

If you add up the attendance for every major-league baseball, basketball, football and hockey game this year, the combined total will come to about 140 million people. That's a big number, but it's barely a fraction of the number of people who will visit American museums this year.

Museums are big business, attracting billions of tourist dollars, advancing science, and educating and amusing more than 850 million people annually.

"Museums are often thought of as nice amenities," says Ford Bell, head of the American Association of Museums. "People don't think about museums as being a critical piece in our educational infrastructure in this country."

Bell says that though museums are a part of the community — and there are more than 17,500 of them throughout the U.S. — their role is not well-understood or well-publicized. And then there's also the "boring" factor. Night At The Museum (a 2006 movie about a watchman who discovers museum exhibits come to life at night) honed in on the stereotype of museums as boring ... but filled with really cool stuff.

Despite any bad rap for being boring or undervalued, there are still 850 million people coming through the nation's museums each year. Why? As Philippe de Montebello, former Metropolitan Museum of Art director, says simply, "A museum is the memory of mankind."

Preserving The Past

Humans have a long history of preserving artifacts of the past. The ancient Greeks coined the term mouseion when they first built a temple to "the Muses," spritely goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences. The Greeks filled their temples with both sculpture and scholars. The tradition was copied in the kingly treasure houses that followed — spoils of war were displayed in the halls of royal palaces and the cages of royal zoos.

Ford Bell says early American collectors were motivated by a different impulse than the kings in Europe.

"In the U.S., we had a new continent we were exploring and opening up and discovering," Bell explains, "and that brought this realization of all the tremendously diverse life forms that were out there."

Bell cites Charles Willson Peale's Cabinet of Curiosities in Philadelphia as a museum that was built around the desire to document the history of discovery in the new world.

Peale was both a painter and a collector, and when he opened one of America's first museums in 1786, he filled it with his own portraits of George Washington, and later with bones he unearthed of a North American woolly mammoth. Meanwhile, other museums were springing up in private homes, and in the inns of any town where someone might believe a sign saying "George Washington Slept Here."

Education Or Entertainment?

Peale's collection and others were bought up in the 1840s by Phineas T. Barnum, who added some showmanship to the enterprise. In the pre-photography era, when a painting of the Grand Canyon could draw block-long lines. P.T. Barnum took the static curiosities in the collections he'd acquired and added "live" curiosities — industrious fleas, a hippo that he told audiences was "The Great Behemoth of the Scriptures" and assorted bearded ladies.

"The earliest museums really were, for lack of a better term, they were kind of freak shows," historian Stephen Asma, author of Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, told NPR in 2002. "The bizarre was collected together with sober specimens with no real order or organization."

Though Asma says curators didn't have the "scientific agenda" that they do today, that agenda wasn't being neglected. Around the time Barnum was turning his museums into carnivals, a somewhat startled U.S. Congress was dealing with an unexpected bequest from an Englishman named James Smithson. His will asked for the establishment of a Smithsonian Institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Congress hired a scientist to run the Smithsonian, and rather than displaying objects, he commissioned experiments and hired explorers. The Smithsonian's chief interest was scholarship, and Bell says the tension between that approach and Barnum's brand of entertainment still exists in today's museums.

At the Minneapolis natural history museum, where Bell used to work, the curators occasionally bring out their curiosities for display — two-headed calves and eight-legged frogs.

"People break down the doors to see those," Bell says. "[The museum does] it over and over again because they're tremendously popular."

But the difference now, he says, is that there is an attempt to make these exhibits educational. Museums use curiosity exhibits as an opportunity to talk about the science of genetic abnormalities and defects.

"They couldn't talk about that in the past," Bell says. "You saw the animal stuffed, but you didn't see the rest of the story."

Tools Of The Trade

The tools for exhibition have themselves gotten more entertaining through the years — everything from child-oriented exploratoriums, to cyber-museums on the Web, to science writ large on giant IMAX screens.

Technology is a useful tool, but like almost everything associated with museums, it presents financial challenges. Museums have a fortune invested in buildings and high-maintenance collections. They have a clientele that expects to see those collections either for free, or at a very low-cost. In addition, museums now need to have really killer Web sites because, as it turns out, the virtual museum actually drives people to the physical museum.

"I don't think there's any substitute to going to a museum and looking at a Chagall," Kevin Guilfoile of the Museum of Online Museums, told NPR in 2006. "Some things just inherently, aesthetically you need to be in the presence of them. Other things, it's not necessary."

Museums are luring visitors these days with buildings that look like giant glass guitars and block-long wads of crumpled titanium. Exotic structures with undulating walls can be hard to hang art on, but they come alive with concerts, wine tastings, and outreach efforts that can make a "night at the museum" feel pretty lively.

Popularity notwithstanding, American museums face a host of other challenges. Appropriating antiquities from archaeological sites is now illegal, so what does that mean for the already-looted loot sitting in exhibits?

Philanthropy in a declining economy is increasingly tricky, as is keeping artifacts safe while still letting the public get close enough to see them.

In a few months, Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian will be out in theaters. If any purists bridle at the premise that these institutions need more special effects, they can take comfort in a simple fact: Even if the new Night at the Museum movie is the biggest hit of 2009 — even if it tops Titanic at the box office — Night at the Museum 2 will still have fewer patrons next year than America's actual museums.

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