Museum in America: Innovators and Pioneers / Registration Methods for the Small Museum

Museum in America: Innovators and Pioneers / Registration Methods for the Small Museum / Introduction to Museum Work, The

Skukla, Pravina

The Museum in America: Innovators and Pioneers. By Edward P. Alexander, with a foreword by William Seale. (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press,1997. Pp. 224, foreword, index.)

Registration Methods for the Small Museum, 3rd edition. By Daniel B. Reibel. (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1997. Pp, 192, introduction, four appendixes, bibliography, index.)

Introduction to Museum Work, 3rd edition. By G. Ellis Burcaw. (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1997. Pp. 237, preface, recommended sources, index.)

Three new books dealing with various issues in the museum world have joined the growing number of books examining collection and documentation, exhibition, interpretation, and education in a museum setting. Two of the books, Registration Methods for the Small Museum and Introduction to Museum Work are in their third editions, attesting to the popularity and need for museum manuals. The other book, The Museum in America, briefly discusses the history of museums in this country by looking at influential people, both men and women, whose visions shaped the different kinds of museums and historical societies to which we have become accustomed. All three authors are well known in the field and have much practical experience, their careers spanning 40 years or more. This fact, of course, has its advantages and disadvantages. Years of personal, hands-on experience is readily apparent and makes the books useful and authoritative, full of actual examples and invaluable anecdotes. On the other hand, the authors’ insufficient understanding of the new directions museums are taking, especially in regard to technology, and a lack of sensitivity in relation to depictions and classifications of non-Western peoples and their art are particularly jarring considering the immense dependency on these books and how many new museum professionals are being trained to think according to superficial guidelines set by the authors, particularly G. Ellis Burcaw.

In Museums in America, Edward Alexander describes 13 people who have helped define the American museum with their vision and determination. The chapter for each person follows the same format, one that gives brief background on the individual and how she or he has changed the institution where she or he worked and, as a consequence, influenced subsequent museums. The book, although a little structurally repetitive, makes for a sporadically interesting read, especially for those unfamiliar with the history of museums and their evolution from private “Cabinets of Curiosities” to the present institutions, where the goals include preservation, collection, conservation, exhibition, interpretation, and, most important, education. In fact, Alexander’s premise in the beginning of the book is the shift in focus of museums from the collection and amassment of objects of an individual collector to “education and, to a limited extent, the amusement of the general public” (p. 15). Implicit in the book is the position that museums must constantly straddle between entertainment and education, the latter being the more important according to Alexander. Some ofthe personal examples of the “pioneers” explicitly illustrate the point that a successful museum exhibition program incorporates both, the goal being to educate while entertaining, a point not returned to again by Alexander and one that, unfortunately, must be inferred by the reader.

An interested reader can reap most of the benefits from the book by just reading a few chapters; not all of the 13 “pioneers” described are of that much interest, especially to folklorists. A notable exception is Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the San Francisco Exploratorium. Oppenheimer’s belief that learning occurs not just by reading but also by handling objects set the standard for most hands-on museums found today. His intuition that one understands an object or a concept by experiencing it lead to the museum’s strategy to incorporate all the senses-sight, smell, touch, taste, and soundin engaging exhibits. This approach to exhibitions and interpretation, as noted by Alexander, should not, ofcourse, be limited to science museums but should be employed in museums teaching art, history, ethnography, and a wealth of other subjects.

Another notable museum innovator was Anna Billings Gallup of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, where she was instrumental in instituting an educational priority with her vision of catering the exhibition space to children by adhering to the simple motto: “Follow the child around” (p. 141). Thus, whether exhibitions worked or failed was not determined by adults trying to see the museum from a child’s point of view but was assessed by the children themselves. Gallup’s perception should be incorporated into the various cultural history exhibitions today, where the experience of a particular people is conveyed. Representatives of the groups in question should not only be consulted but be incorporated into many aspects of the exhibition to check for “authenticity” of experience (as much as is theoretically possible with this highly problematic term), biases, or other inaccuracies (this practice is currently only employed by a handful of museums).

The book’s weakness lies in the fact that it is merely a recounting of the trials and tribulations of prominent figures in American museology, without correlations and implications for the future in each chapter. A comprehensive conclusion, one that applies the lessons learned from each of the 13 “masters” to the future of museums would be not only beneficial but relevant and make the book more than just a history of a few of the most visible figures in our past.

Alexander’s historical perspective, experience, and most important, passion about museums is evident throughout the book (he wrote this book at age 90). However, he seems slightly out of tune with current dimensions of museurns today. He implies directions for the future of museums in which “curators, educators, designers, and administrators ought to form a team to further the educational impact of the whole museum” (p. 17), whereby exhibitions and related programs cater to different facets of the community through outreach and expanded pubic relations. Although excellent advice, this is not a vision of where museums should go but, rather, of where most of the good ones in this country already are. Needed is a more realistic assessment of the present situation of museums as well as a realization ofhow technology can enhance, and not compete with and make obsolete, the museum experience. Omission of some disagreeable terminology such as Orientals and allusions to the male museum masters’ relations vis-a-vis “young ladies” would make the book more pleasant to read.

Daniel Reibel’s Registration Methods for the Small Museum is a manual for the museum professional rather than for the student of museum studies-or folklorist for that matter. The book walks the novice registrar through the complete process of accessioning, cataloging, and documenting an object acquired by an institution. Reibel’s extensive experience in museums provides the book with countless useful examples and practical solutions that only years of thought can bestow. The appendixes further teach about the important day-to-day registration work that provides the backbone of a collection that must be accessible to curators, researchers, and educators. Practical matters such as accession numbers, measurements, insurance, lending and borrowing, bequest of gifts, and preparation of a museum mission statement are well described and illustrated with many examples.

Reibel is very aware of the necessity of computers in a museum setting. Although he describes how to accession and catalog using paper records, he emphasizes the endless advantages of keeping all records in a computer. He briefly touches on the requirement of having digital images of objects, representations attached to document screens instead of photographs taped to the back of accession records. Reibel is also enlightened about the possibility of objects being viewed and researched via the Internet, which safeguards the objects against wear and tear and exposes more people and researchers to a museum’s collection.

As comprehensive as the book is, it overlooks facts that would make it more useful. For example, instead of just providing samples of accession worksheets and log entries, a detailed and thorough model of computer screens would help those museums that are currently switching from paper to computer records. More detailed guidelines on the documentation and paperwork involved when lending and borrowing whole exhibitions, not just individual objects, would be beneficial, especially because small museums might not have the budgets to develop their own exhibitions but might be able to serve as venues for traveling ones. Furthermore, in chapter 8, where he advises on computer hardware considerations, mention of compatibility with other departments in the museum, namely, education and exhibition design, could make the transfer of object and accession information easier and less prone to mistakes in dimensions, materials, or donor information. Reibel’s book is indispensable for the inexperienced registrar ofany sized museum but not of much use to students and instructors of museum studies.

Burcaw’s Introduction to Museum Work is perhaps the most widely used textbook for museum studies courses around the world. It has some real strengths: Burcaw provides several definitions of museums, including those of the American Association of Museums and UNESCO. The book is very comprehensive, discussing important matters such as collecting, cataloging, security, permanent and temporary exhibitions, philosophy, and law, among others. Chapters are dense, with much background information and examples, and each supplies a series of exercise questions that engage thinking about student’s local museums and historical societies. These exercises offer many stimulating questions and scenarios but would be enhanced if they provided for more role-playing opportunities in which students would assume the personas of museum professionals and together arrive at conclusions, This would not only give students a chance to think through a problem from the point of view ofa director of education, curator, or exhibition designer, for instance, but show that museum decisions are always negotiated ones, with different agendas and sensibilities that must nonetheless work as a whole for an exhibition to succeed.

Burcaw, a trained anthropologist, is unfortunately a firm believer and advocate of an evolutionary theory of culture: “All art originated with primitive or tribal art, in the sense that all mankind was in a pre-civilized state. As culture develops to more complex forms, elite art emerges” (p. 78). Although most of the points he makes about museums apply to all public institutions that collect, interpret, and educate through art, his antiquated thinking causes him to make constant and severely limited differentiations among museums ofart, history, and science: “Art museums collect the elite artistic productions of civilized societies . . . as well as folk art, and some of the crafts of pre-civilized and pre-urban peoples” (p. 38). Burcaw’s oldfashioned notions unfortunately determine ideas in chapter 8, where he defines and discusses art:

Generally speaking, art as art is characteristic only of civilized society. The term “folk art” as applied to ethnological specimens collected and shown by some art museums can be misleading. That is, we may enjoy them as though they were works of art, but the maker of the objects did not have that intention. . , . Another distinction between primitive or tribal art and true or fine art is this: the former expresses group sentiments, and the latter expresses individual (that is the artist’s) sentiments. [p. 80]

Precisely because it is used by so many aspiring museum professionals as a manual, this artificial, outdated, and racist distinction between art displayed in art museums and the objects considered “folk art” is notably disturbing, particularly for those students living outside of the Western world whose local art fails in the category of “primitive or tribal” (p. 40). No book, especially one in its third edition and printed in 1997, should convey such derogatory ideas and differentiations and use such offensive language, Even though the book has some usefulness in teaching about museums, it is difficult to tolerate vocabulary and beliefs considered to be obsolete in this day and age. I would think that the distressing categorization of art and peoples put forth by the book would be insulting not just to folklorists but to art historians and museums professionals against whose “elite” art “folk art” is pitted.

In the not-too-distant past there were no real definitions or guidelines for museums. But we are currently living in a time in which sophisticated introspection about the nature of display, interpretation, and public programming is considered de rigueur. To this explosion of discourse on museology, we can add the three books on review. Although each has many positive attributes, as a result of lessons learned working in and thinking about museums, they also need to be more in touch with both the present and the future of museums and the directions they are taking. Authors writing about museums today must be aware of the benefits of technology in enhancing the exhibition space and process and aware of the perils of outdated thinking and judgments about ethnic and folk arts and the people who create and use them. The present generation of museum professionals will benefit from more sensitive works, in which sensibilities other than the authors’ have been taken into consideration.


University of California at Los Angeles

Copyright American Folklore Society, Inc. Spring 2000

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