Technical Museums and International Exhibitions


Amazed I pass

From glass to glass.

Deloighted I survey 'em;

Fresh wondthers grows

Before me nose

In this sublime Musayum!

W. M. THACKERAY, "Mr. Molony's

Account of the Crystal Palace''1

The idea of a technical museum has firm roots in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cabinets of mechanical models; the idea was enlarged in the nineteenth century fairs and exhibitions of mechanics' institutes; but with few exceptions today's technical museums owe their existence to the international exhibitions of the nineteenth century.

The 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, first of the major international exhibitions, was directly responsible for the Victoria and Albert Museum, out of which grew London's Science Museum. The original impetus for Vienna's Technische Museum für Industrie und Gewerbe was supplied by the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873.2 The International Centennial Exhibition, in Philadelphia in 1876, made possible the maturing of George Brown Goode's plan for a full-scale United States National Museum in Washington. The Deutsches Museum, in Munich, grew out of the visit of Oskar von Miller, its future founder, to the 1881 International Electrical Exposition in Paris, while he was yet in his twenties.3 The Museum of Science and Industry, in Chicago, took its inspiration from the Deutsches Museum and its building from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.4 Henry Ford's capacious plans were laid after he had visited the Science Museum in London and had decided that he would build a better museum in Detroit.5

International exhibitions have not been the only influence shaping technical museums. It might be argued that technical museums, appearing when a culture becomes sufficiently aware of its technical abilities, simply hold a mirror to the general state of mechanical knowledge.6 In addition the independent ideas of museum directors and curators have resulted in great diversity and considerable novelty in museums. Nevertheless, it is the enthusiasm and uncritical spirit of the exhibition which have affected most deeply the philosophy that has guided the development of technical museums. Too often the results have been unfortunate.

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Among the earliest accumulations that might be called technical museums were the seventeenth-century collections of mechanical models, which were intended to instruct artisans and to stimulate improvement in the mechanical arts. Francis Bacon (d. 1626), in emphasizing the practical consequences of the new science, proposed a museum of inventions and a gallery of portraits of inventors.7 The French Académie des Sciences, shortly after it was founded in 1666, established a collection of models submitted by inventors who wished to receive the endorsement of their inventions by the Académie.8 Eventually a descriptive catalogue of these models was issued in seven volumes.9 In Sweden, Christopher Polhem proposed in 1695 to establish under the Bureau of Mines a mechanical laboratory in which useful machines might be developed; a permanent display of machines was intended to be a part of this laboratory. The Swedish Royal Model Chamber came into being in 1748, when Polhem provided models of a number of his machines for display in the Royal Palace.l0

In the eighteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution in England extinguished any doubt as to the positive economic effects of invention, there appeared the first of the societies whose chief purpose was to encourage industrial development. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (now the Royal Society of Arts) was founded in 1754. It was assumed at the outset that industry could be stimulated by awarding prizes to inventors. Probably because the principal founder, William Shipley, was a teacher of drawing, awards were also given to encourage boys and girls to learn the "Art of Drawing.''1l Although the relationship between art and industry was never quite explicitly stated by the Society, neither was it forgotten In the first meeting of the Society it was "the Opinion of all present that the Art of Drawing is absolutely Necessary in many Employments, Trades, & Manufactures, and that the Encouragement thereof may prove of great Utility to the public." When the Crystal Palace Exhibition came into view a century later, attention was riveted even more firmly upon art in industry for it was then observed that Continental designs of consumer goods were far superior to those of the English.l2

The Society of Arts appears to have been the first, in 1761, to provide a docent, or guide, to explain "to all comers" the collection of models that had resulted from its award-granting activities. The residue of this haphazard accumulation of models over the next hundred years found its way eventually to the present Science Museum in London.l3

Largely through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, who as early as 1756 had corresponded with and contributed to the London society, a similar society was established in Philadelphia in 1766 under the name "The American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge." Two years later the American Society merged with the American Philosophical Society; by the time of the merger a cabinet of models bad already been formed.14

Near the end of the eighteenth century the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers [Arts and Trades] was founded in Paris. The central purpose of the Conservatoire, like that of the Society of Arts, was to encourage industrial development. However, the approach of the French establishment was different from that of the English and American societies. A model collection was to be used primarily to demonstrate design practices and principles. Deriving its support from government, the Conservatoire was intended from the start as a teaching institution, although prizes were for some years awarded for inventions. The full program was slow in developing, but before 1820 public lectures and classes of instructions were being held in several branches of applied science. The first collections of the Conservatoire, which now ranks high among the great technical museums of the world, came from a large group of models accumulated by Jacques de Vaucanson who, upon his death in 1782, had willed his collection to the public.15

Although mechanics' institutes were formed during the 1820's on both sides of the Atlantic, the British and American movements toward providing workingmen with elementary technical schooling were essentially different. The British institutes, important in the development of technical education in Great Britain, were founded for the workingman by industrial managers and businessmen.16 The evident success of George Birkbeck's popular lectures and the well-publicized formation of the London Mechanics' Institute in 1823 17 no doubt encouraged the founding of mechanics' institutes in the United States, although at least one—the Mechanics' Scientific Institution, in New York—was in existence before 1823.18

Unlike those in Great Britain, the American mechanics' institutes were formed by the mechanics themselves. For example, the organizers of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia were small manufacturers and mechanics, the social and economic structure of Philadelphia being such that any distinction between the two classes was quite indefinite. The leading spirit was Samuel V. Merrick, a fire-engine builder; among the first members were Matthias Baldwin, then the proprietor of a general jobbing machine shop, Franklin Peale, a fine mechanic who was also active in his father's museum, and Henry and Stephen Morris, iron founders.l9

Almost from the day it was founded, on February 5, 1824, the Franklin Institute was a vital and influential organization. Like nearly all of the American societies, its first order of business was to organize an industrial exhibition. An "American Manufactures Exhibition" was held at Carpenters' Hall in October, 1824; this was followed over the next thirty-four years by at least twenty-five similar exhibitions.20 To encourage invention, medals and premiums were awarded at the exhibitions; a permanent cabinet of models and minerals was formed in the Society's library ("to which [according to an English visitor] no light literature is admitted, even as a gift");21 and lecture courses were given in applied mechanics and chemistry. From the start, the Institute had a Committee on inventions, which was active throughout the nineteenth century; in the 1830's a committee was formed to investigate the causes of steam-boiler explosions.

A development of the 1830's in England, which was to have an effect upon the Crystal Palace Exhibition and its aftermath, was the establishment of government schools of design, for the purpose of reducing the competitive advantages enjoyed by French manufacturers in the "fancy trades, the silk, ribbon, china, and similar trades."22 This movement was mirrored in the United States within a few years. In the 1840's, the Franklin Institute encouraged the Philadelphia School of Design for women. The Maryland Institute in 1851 opened classes in design, extending the instruction to architectural and engineering drawing as well as "artistic" drawing. Some four hundred students attended the classes.23

Thus it was, during the years leading up to the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, that an increasing number of people became involved in the stimulation of industry through displays of machines and models, through providing organized exhibitions for competitive displays of products, and through furnishing workingmen with training in the practical application of art and science to industry. The goal, quite simply, was progress.

* * *

The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, popularly known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, or simply the Great Exhibition, was the crowning achievement of the Royal Society of Arts. With one eye on trade exhibitions that were being held sporadically in Manchester, Leeds, and other industrial towns in England, and with the other eye on the French national exhibitions, of which the one held in 1844 appeared to be particularly successful, a few members of the Society of Arts proposed a national exhibition of British industry. Under the encouragement of the Society's president, who was Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, the objectives of the proposal were expanded and the exhibition became the first international exhibition.24

The story of the exhibition has been told many times.25 As every new author approaches the subject he is struck by the fresh and highly imaginative quality of the exhibition when it opened in Hyde Park on May 1, 1851. True, the exhibition building was large, but large buildings were no particular novelty to a people who, though their own homes might be but hovels, lived among castles, palaces, and manor houses. The magic of the Great Exhibition lay in the peculiarly appropriate genius of Joseph Paxton, the designer of its building. Drawing upon his background as gardener, landscape architect, builder of conservatories, and man of affairs, Paxton had conceived and produced in less than a fortnight the plans for a building of iron and glass that was so novel and, at the same time, so thoroughly delightful that the Building Committee simply was not permitted by the public to follow its intention of building a vast but rather ordinary brick exhibition hall. Paxton's building was a pioneering work; it was remarkable both in concept and in size. Cast-iron columns supported cast- and wrought-iron built-up girders, the walls and roof consisting merely of the supporting structure for a continuous expanse of glass. The spell of the building was made complete when a London writer, probably in Punch, dubbed the creation the "Crystal Palace."

The building was designed to employ modular units—for example, only two different lengths of girders were used, and a repetitive pattern throughout made possible the use of prefabricated components. Once the parts had been made, erection of the building was spectacularly rapid. While this was not the first building to be assembled rather than constructed—James Bogardus, a New York iron-founder, had in 1840 erected a four-story cast-iron building, 30 X 100 feet—the exhibition building was the one that brought the idea before the world and demonstrated unequivocally its utility. A few figures may suggest the magnitude of the undertaking. The building was 1,851 feet long and 45 feet broad across the transept. It covered 18 acres of ground, contain 3,300 iron columns, 2,522 girders, and 900,000 square feet of glass in panes 12 X 49 inches—over 200,000 pieces of glass. The building was planned, contracts for components and glass were let, and the erection was completed, all in the space of eight months.26

Opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on May 1, 1951, the Crystal Palace Exhibition attracted throngs of visitors throughout that summer, until it was closed by Prince Albert on October 15. The official purpose of the Great Exhibition was to stimulate and promote British industry by "placing it in fair competition with that of other nations."27 Unlike nearly all subsequent international exhibitions, the Crystal Palace Exhibition was financially successful, taking in more money than was paid out.

A few lessons were learned from the exhibits of the United States. One English journal went so far as to say that "Great Britain has received more useful ideas, and more ingenious inventions from the United States, through the exhibition, than from all other sources."28 Actually, except for the purchase of some American gun-making machinery and the introduction of the "American system" of manufacture of interchangeable parts into the new rifle works at Enfield Armory, the ideas from the United States had but slight effect upon British industry

In the view of British men of influence, the most significant revelation of the Exhibition was the backward state of British "industrial design " John Scott Russell, a prominent engineer and one of the principal promoters of the Great Exhibition, noted later that in 1851 "England had been struck by the amazing superiority of some continental nations in the beauty and grace of design, which sufficed to convert the rude and nearly worthless materials of clay and flint . . . into valuable and invaluable works of art, in earthenware and glass."29 The consensus of opinion that mattered—specifically, the commissioners who were to dispose of the surplus from the Exhibition—was that British deficiencies could be remedied by improving the government schools of design. One of the ultimate results of this belief was the complex of museums in South Kensington, whose development will be traced in a moment. Meanwhile, the superlatives of the Crystal Palace demand examination.

The magic of Paxton's design is all too likely to obscure the harsh and strident voice of progress that called the tunes in 1851. There was a great wave of concern over the education of workingmen, but the reasons were as apparent as the results were ineffective: the workingman must be better trained (so the argument ran) in order that British industry might maintain her commercial lead over the rest of the world The national schools of art, for example, were "for the instruction of students In drawing, designing, and modeling, to be applied to the requirements of trade and manufactures."30 The focus, quite clearly, was upon industry.

An anonymous critic, writing in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, dwelt for a moment upon the proposition, so often advanced during the Great Exhibition, that "the wealthy part of our nation have shown an extraordinary solicitude for the well-being of the less favoured class."

"Perhaps, too," he wrote, "a little solicitude for the common safety And very wise of them if they have." The exertion of all hands on board a leaky ship upon the cry of "man the pumps" is hardly a matter that calls for special congratulation.31

* * *

The challenge of an international exhibition to a collector's instinct is not easily denied. After nearly every large exhibition, including this first one, there have been voices lamenting the dispersal of the impressive collections that have been brought together.

After meeting all expenses of the Great Exhibition, the official commissioners were left with a surplus of some £180,000. The upshot of a considerable discussion was the decision to buy property in South Kensington on which to erect a suitable museum of industrial art, which would be used in support of government schools of design. Having as its nucleus a residue of materials salvaged from the Great Exhibition, the institution that is now the Victoria and Albert Museum was opened in 1857. The keeper (curator) of this museum summarized the thinking that led to its establishment:

The Exhibition of 1851 itself was a museum, of necessity limited in its teaching functions from representing only the art of the present day; and yet if on this restricted footing its influence had been so remarkable, what might not be expected from a permanent institution, on the widest and most liberal basis, comprising specimens of all periods and countries specially directed and arranged with a view to the promotion of taste in ornamental or industrial art? Such an institution it was determined to found.32

This South Kensington Museum of Industrial Art was active in preparing teachers for schools of design, and it was perhaps here that the practice of sending out loan collections to other institutions was first established.

The Science Museum, which is located across Exhibition Road from the Victoria and Albert Museum, inherited some of the miscellaneous mechanical collections of the museum, but the particular original objects that make the Science Museum so significant came from another quarter. Bennet Woodcroft (1803-79), who as patent commissioner launched an incredibly ambitious publishing program that made British patent information for the first time available to the public, was an inveterate collector. He brought to the Patent Office his own collection of mechanical models, which under his guidance grew into the important Patent Office Museum. It was Woodcroft who rescued from oblivion the Watt engine of 1788, Stephenson's locomotive Rocket of 1829, and many other important objects. His attempt to recover the model of the Marquis of Worcester's steam engine, which Worcester had said would be buried with him, was unsuccessful because the model was not in his coffin, a fact that Woodcroft learned in 1861 when he opened the grave. The Patent Office Museum languished after Woodcroft's death, but the objects were preserved and were transferred first to the South Kensington Museum and eventually to the Science Museum.33

In 1852, when the Crystal Palace was removed from Hyde Park, as required by Parliament, a private syndicate was formed to re-erect it in Sydenham, a few miles to the south across the river. The building was to be filled with exotic trees and vegetation of all kinds, replicas of the most famous statues and buildings from Greece and Rome, an Egyptian hall, medieval and Renaissance halls, and the Hall of Lions from the A1hambra. Geological and mining displays were planned; industrial halls, halls of musical and philosophical instruments were provided for. Extensive fountains and gardens, to be decorated with examples of prehistoric beasts, were located outside.34 While all the grandiose plans were never quite accomplished, this museum was probably the first to have coherent exhibits. William Stanley Jevons, a Victorian social reformer who thought most museums were a mistake, reacted quite favorably to the rebuilt Crystal Palace. "The Pompeian House," he wrote, "is the best possible Museum of Roman life and character. For a few minutes at least the visitor steps from the present; he shuts out the age of iron, and steam, and refreshment contractors, and the likes and learns to realise the past. As to the Alhambra Court, it is a matchless lesson in art and architecture."35

The Centennial International Exhibition, held in 1876 in Philadelphia, was the event that put the United States National Museum on a permanent footing. Seizing the opportunity that was suggested by the coming exhibition, George Brown Goode (1851-96), who was but twenty five in the Centennial year, prepared extensive exhibits showing mammal and fish resources of the United States for display in the Philadelphia exhibition. Supported by Spencer Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Goode was able after the exhibition to take possession of a residue that was carried to Washington in twenty-one railroad cars.36

Baird thought that this "acquisition [of exhibits] by the United States tends to render the benefits of the international exhibition permanent to a great degree; it is, therefore, of importance that, while the lessons of the exhibition are still fresh in mind these objects should be exhibited and attention invited to them."37 The urgent need thus generated for additional museum space in Washington was met, but not until 1881, when the building finally authorized by Congress in 1879 was completed. This building, in the form of a square 327 feet on a side, which is located just east of the original neo-Norman Smithsonian building, was referred to as early as 1896 as "one of the cheapest of its size ever erected."38 A cheap building, which could be speedily erected, seemed desirable in order to avoid losing "the stimulus of the exhibition and the benefits of its study."39

The Philadelphia Centennial collections were not the first that the National Museum had had. Over Joseph Henry's constant protests, the Smithsonian Institution had from its start been saddled with increasing quantities of specimens and objects collected by American exploring and surveying expeditions. By constant maneuvering, Henry had managed to avoid serious involvement in museum activities until nearly 1860, and as late as 1876 he lived in hope that the National Museum soon would be separated completely from the Smithsonian Institution, that the government would buy back the Smithsonian building in order to house the museum, and that his institution might move to smaller quarters "in a building better adapted to its operations, and far less expensive in its maintenance." Henry was of opinion that there was no necessary connection between his beloved institution and the museum. "It is the design of the Museum," he wrote, "to continually increase its collections of material objects; of the Institution, to extend the bounds of human knowledge."40 For better or worse, Henry's hopes were not realized.

A separate movement in Philadelphia had succeeded in purchasing the Main Exhibition Building of the Centennial, and in this vast edifice, over 21 acres in extent (the new National Museum building covered 2 acres) a "permanent exhibition" was opened in May, 1877. It was expected that this exhibition, which was to be set up in the style of the Kensington museum, would be "continually useful as a school of instruction, and of increasing interest." Yet the movement petered out in 1881, and the building was torn down.41

The Deutsches Museum of Oskar von Miller, first proposed in 1903 and finally opened in its own building in 1925, was the first modern technical museum in which extensive use was made of operating exhibits to draw attention, to provide entertainment designed to arouse curiosity, and to involve the visitor in the exhibit (as, for example, by pushing a button to start the action).42 Miller's museum was formed largely through his own efforts; exhibits and objects were not obtained from an international exhibition. Nevertheless, the dispensing of popular and painless education through entertainment and activity is an underlying aim of this museum and those that have copied its methods.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago was a frank copy of the Deutsches Museum. Julius Rosenwald, visiting Munich with his family in 1920, saw the museum in its temporary quarters. He was so struck by the delighted reaction of his son to the moving displays that he took steps in Chicago that led eventually to the Museum of Science and Industry. The Fine Arts Building of the 1893 Columbian Exposition was rebuilt, using permanent materials, and the first exhibition halls were opened in 1933. The original plan of organization, following that of the Deutsches Museum, included curators, as in any serious museum, and a number of significant exhibits were installed. While action was "the vital principle" of Rosenwald's museum, it was noted in the first popular guidebook that this was to be "no technical Coney Island." The action, it was claimed, was but a means to an end, and the end was mass education. If the action was the means whereby a visitor "learned something," the means were thus justified.43 Eventually, the Museum of Science and Industry lost its curatorial staff and sold space to industrial corporations. While the museum is enormously popular, that fact perhaps results from its having become precisely what it was not intended to be: a technical Coney Island.

The Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, contrasts sharply with most other technical museums. Founded by a practical mechanic whose historical sense and discrimination were in general quite sound, Henry Ford's museum contains several very strong collections, particularly in power machinery and machine tools.44 The museum has never had an adequate curatorial staff; the labeling is abominable; its publications are trivial. Nevertheless, the museum continues to preserve a vast number of significant objects. In my opinion, this is an indispensably necessary, though insufficient, purpose of a museum.

* * *

Countless hours of planning and execution have been spent in bringing technical museums to their present state of development. That an increasing number of large and complex exhibition halls are now open to visitors is true beyond cavil. That all these added halls represent a net gain in public enlightenment is open to serious question.

The idea that the process of tramping through vast halls past countless objects, pictures, signs, and diagrams is somehow educational—that education without effort is dispensed here—is a particularly unfortunate conclusion that has been stated over and over again by enthusiastic observers of exhibitions and of museums. In the reconstructed Crystal Palace, for example, it was expected that "instruction and knowledge of the most refined kind should be conveyed through the medium of the eye to all visitors; in a word, that the eye of the sight-seer should never weary of looking, while the mind should almost unconsciously imbibe knowledge, and that of a kind fully equal to the standard of modern excellence."46 Carlos Cummings, a museum director who gave much thought to world's fairs, was struck at the 1933 Century of Progress by the way in which the "important part which science had played in the development of civilization and human comfort . . . was explained in such a fashion that it was really intelligible to the average layman without any very great mental effort."48 We are reminded by Goode that "the task of a museum visitor is a weary one at best";47 and another prominent student of museums has observed that only in a museum is a student expected to learn while standing up.48

Jevons, the English social reformer and economist already mentioned, recognized the mistaken ideas that were derived from the Great Exhibition and incorporated into the popular museums that resulted. "There seems to be a prevalent idea," he wrote, "that if the populace can only be got to walk about a great building filled with tall glass-cases, full of beautiful objects, especially when illuminated by electric light, they will become civilized.49

It should be obvious to any sensible person, thought Jevons, that "to comprehend the purpose, construction, mode of use, and history of a single novel object or machine, would usually require from (say) half-an-hour up to several hours or days of careful study."50 Most of this kind of understanding is to be found in books, and the museum curator must be constantly alert for the moment when his exhibit begins to encroach upon the province of a book.51 Jevons went to the heart of the matter when he pointed out that one should visit a museum "to learn what cannot be learnt by words."52

An anonymous writer in the Atlantic Monthly, in closing a series of articles on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, made a statement that has been accepted, in spirit at least, by too many museum people. "It [the Centennial] has diffused an incalculable amount of general information, geographical, historical, and scientific, among millions of people," he wrote. "Such information is necessarily most superficial, but it fertilizes the common mind and in many cases gives the impulse to serious research."53 Fertilizing the common mind is, I suppose, an act of faith; but I think that a museum should have a clearer purpose than inspiring "serious research" through an incalculable amount of superficial information.

Enthusiastic as was George Brown Goode about international exhibitions and the popular aspects of museums, he was very clear on the distinctions between fairs and museums. "The exposition or exhibition and fair are primarily for the promotion of industry and commerce," he wrote, "the museum for the advancement of learning."54 To those who would use museums to show what goes on in a factory, Goode pointed out that, "after all, a factory in actual operation is the best place to study most modern industries."56 In Goode's mind a museum, whatever else it did, collected and preserved objects.56 Of equal importance was the publication of new knowledge derived from the museum's collections.57

The fair-induced enthusiasm for a great public show is likely to mislead curators as well as casual observers. For this reason, serious technical museums should be much more explicit than they are in their stated objectives. A technical museum should display objects. Labels are necessary, of course, but the notion of Cummings that a "museum of ideas rather than objects"58 is superior to the mere displayer of objects is, in my opinion, flatly wrong. I think, for example, of the 1788 Watt engine in the Science Museum in London. The original machine is an enormously impressive sight; faithfully executed full-size replicas in the Deutsches Museum and in the Ford Museum convey a message only slightly blurred. Similarly, the marvelous eighteenth-century orrery of David Rittenhouse was to me merely an ingenious instrument-maker's exercise until I was confronted by the original object, in all its incredible elegance. No "museum of ideas rather than objects" can give a visitor the subtle thrill of communing with a craftsman 4,000 years dead, who fashioned the model textile shop that any visitor to the Metropolitan Museum may see for himself.

I think also of Teyler's Museum, in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Perhaps a dozen people a day enter this museum; an ancient attendant appears from some far-off room to unlock the door and admit the visitor. Here, in a hall that has changed almost not at all in a hundred years,59 is the great Van Marum electrostatic machine of 1784.60 A picture would tell me what the machine looked like; a description would tell me what it was for; but the machine itself exhibits the qualities—of scale, workmanship, finish, and the like—that simply are not conveyed indirectly. The noble machine will live in my mind while I live, but Teyler's Museum will have to introduce succeeding generations to the machine for I cannot transmit in words, with sufficient precision, the qualities that have so impressed me. There was no "selling" of exhibits in Teyler's, nor any posters nor pictures of progress.

While objects will speak for themselves to the visitor who knows what he is looking at, it is of course necessary to supply even the most knowledgeable visitor with guidance. This can take the form of a carefully prepared label,61 but another approach, too seldom exploited, is suggested by the original intention of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. There much of the teaching was expected to be done in the halls of the museum by trained attendants who would explain exhibits. Consider, for a moment, the way in which the uninformed person, lacking academic guidance in library resources, learns to use a library. He asks a question; a librarian—an intelligent guide, not a guard or custodian—answers to the best of his or her ability. The potential reader thus begins the personal process that can ultimately bring libraries to serve his needs. I suggest that museums are not essentially different from libraries. Some guidance is needed by the interested but uninformed visitor; his only contact, usually, is with a guard who knows nothing about the collections that the visitor cannot read for himself--and frequently less. Few visitors want to be taken to a distant curator. A good information desk is needed much more than a stand to dispense pennants, cheap mementoes, and picture postcards.62

In too many cases, technical museums continue to reflect, both in philosophy and practice, the international exhibitions that gave them birth. As long as technical museums are equated, by public and curator alike, with a permanent trade fair, so long will the museums continue to be immensely popular—and largely vacuous. Their uncritical emphasis upon the superficial and spectacular and their failure even to suggest the unsolved problems posed by the "progress" to which the whole show is dedicated can only add strength to the accelerating movement toward undiscriminating mechanization of man's environment.


Mr. Ferguson, formerly Curator of Mechanical and Civil Engineering at the Smithsonian Institution, is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University (Ames). He is Chairman of the Bibliography Committee of the Society of the History of Technology.

1 Quoted in Christopher Hobhouse, 1851 and the Crystal Palace (New York, 1937), p. 176.

2 Charles R. Richards, The Industrial Museum (New York, 1925), p. 33.

3 Conrad Matschoss (ed.), Das Deutsche Museum, Geschichte, Aufgaben, Ziele (3d ed.; Berlin, 1933), p. 1.

4 Waldemar Kaempffert, From Cave-Man to Engineer: The Museum of Science and Industry founded by Julius Rosenwald, an Institution To Reveal the Technical Ascent of Man (Chicago, 1933), pp. 3-5.

5 Newcomen Society, Transactions, XXVIII (1951-53), 211.

6 The industrial exhibition is treated in Samuel Rezneck "The Rise and Early Development of Industrial Consciousness in the United States, 1760-1830," Journal of Economic and Business History, IV, Part 2 (1932), 784-811.

7 H. W. Dickinson, "Museums and Their Relation to the History of Engineering and Technology," Newcomen Society, Transactions, XIV (1933-34), 1-12. Other Seventeenth-century proposals are mentioned in this article (p. 4). Also, at Wolanton colliery in Nottinghamshire in 1610, models were displayed of water-raising machines from Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries (J. U. Nef, Rise of the British Coal Industry [London, 1932], I, 242)

8 Martha Ornstein, The Role of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century (Chtcago, 1928), p. 155. I do not know what became of the models.

9 Academie des Sciences, Machines et inventions approuvées par l'Académie royale des sciences, depuis son établissement jusqu'à present (7 vols.; Paris, 1735-77). About 500 devices are described; the first volume covers the period before 1700.

10 Samuel E. Bring, "A Contribution to the Biography of Christopher Polhem," Christopher Polhem, the Father of Swedish Technology, trans. Wm. A. Johnson (Hartford, Conn., 1963), pp. 33-35. This model collection, one of the most remarkable early mechanical collections in the world, now resides in the Tekniska Museet, Stockholm.

11 Derek Hudson and Kenneth W. Luckhurst, The Royal Society of Arts (London, 1954), pp. 6-8.

12 See, for example, John Scott Russell's comments below. There was also a desire to elevate public taste, because English industrial producers of "good Art" complained that they could not make a profit (ibid., p. 193).

13 Ibid., pp. 19, 294; Kenneth W. Luckhurst, The Story of Exhibitions (London, 1951), p. 63. William Bailey was engaged for two weeks to act as docent. Many of the models had been destroyed or dispersed before the collection was turned over (ca. 1850) to Bennet Woodcroft, who formed the Patent Museum.

14 Robert P. Multhauf, A Catalogue of Instruments and Models in the Possession of the American Philosophical Society [A.P.S., Memoirs, Vol. LIII] (Philadelphia, 1961), pp. 4-5.

15 "Imperial Conservatory of Arts and Trades," American Journal of Education, XXI (1870), 439-49. This museum, which throughout its long life has been a center of learning, has now an incomparably rich collection of machines and scientific instruments. See also R. Tresse, "Le Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers et la Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale au début du 19e siècle," Revue d'histoire des sciences et de leurs applications, V (July-September, 1952), 246-64

l6 Sir Eric Ashby, "Education for an Age of Technology," in A History of Technology (5 vols.; Oxford, 1954-58), ed. Chas. Singer et al., V, 777.

17 Birkbeck (1776-1841) was associated with Glasgow's Andersonian University, a workingman's institute, from 1799 to 1804. In 1823, an article in Mechanics' Magazine, I (October 11 1823), 99-102, precipitated the formation of the London Mechanics' Institute, of which Birkbeck became president (see J. W. Hudson, The History of Adult Education [London, 1851], a history of British mechanics' institutes and literary societies). A model cabinet was suggested for the London institute (Mechanics' Magazine, I [November 22, 1823], 198-99), but I have found no further mention of it.

18 Mechanics' Magazine, I (November 15, 1823), 186-87. The history of societies in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia is outlined in Charles P. Daly, Origin and History of Institutions for tbe Promotion of the Useful Arts (Albany, N.Y., 1864), an address before the American Institute of the City of New York. A thorough study of these institutions has not yet been made.

19 A detailed history of the Franklin Institute before 1884 is in J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 (3 vols.; Philadelphia 1884), II, 1214-19. Short historical sketches of the Franklin Institute have appeared from time to time, but there is no monographic treatment, as there should be.

20 Between 1824 and 1858, Franklin Institute held twenty-six exhibitions; the twenty-seventh was in 1874; in 1884 the Institute sponsored an international electrical exhibition. Catalogues and other publications of the exhibitions are in Franklin Institute Library. In the same library see catalogues of the exhibitions of Societies in Baltimore, Cincinnati, New York, and San Francisco.

21 Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers [House of Commons], 1854, Vol. XXXVI, "New York Industrial Exhibition. Special Report of Mr. George Wallis," p. 63.

22 American Journal of Education, XXII (1871), 42.

23 Parliamentary Papers, op. cit., pp. 62, 65.

24 Hudson and Luckhurst, op. cit., pp. 187-205.

25 For example, in Luckburst, op. cit., chaps. ix, x; Yvonne Ffrench, The Great Exhibition: 1851 (London, 1950); and Hobhouse, op. cit.

26 Ffrench, op. cit., pp. l04-5; Hobhouse, op. cit., pp. 39, 50.

27 Hudson and Luckhurst, op. cit., p. 199.

28 Quoted in Benjamin P. Johnson, Report of . . . the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations (Albany, N.Y., 1852), p. 15.

29 American Journal of Education, XXI (1870), 384.

30 Ibid., XXII (1871), 111.

31 Anon., "Voltaire in the Crystal Palace," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, LXX (Aug. 1851),142-53.

32 American Journal of Education, XXII (1871), 77-78.

33 The story of grave-robbing is told by Henry W. Dickinson, op. cit., p. 8. In my opinion this quixotic but thoroughly commendable investigation by Woodcroft makes any claim of Worcester's contribution to steam-engine development Completely untenable.

34 Benjamin Silliman Jr., and C. R. Goodrich (eds.), The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853-54 (New York, 1854), pp. 18-19. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham was destroyed by fire in 1937.

35 Methods of Social Reform (London, 1883), p. 57.

36 "Hay" cars, which held half again as much freight as an ordinary box car, were used. Goode had taken with him to Philadelphia another twenty-one cars of exhibits, which were also returned to Washington (Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report . . . for tbe Year 1876 [Washington, 1877], pp. 43-44).

37 Ibid., p. 46.

38 George B . Goode (ed.), The Smithsonian Institution 1846-1896: The History of Its First Half Century (Washington, 1897), p. 330. The total cost was $250,000, or about $2.84 per square foot (see Annual Report . . . 1876, p. 47). The best description of the building that I have found is in the Annual Report . . . 1879, pp. 125-40. The reports through 1882 contain further details of construction.

39 Annual Report . . . 1876, p. 47. The building still exists, having just been aban doned by the Museum of History and Technology.

40 Ibid., pp. 11-12.

41 Scharf and Westcott, op. cit., II, 1863. Memorial Hall, intended from the start as a permanent art gallery, covered an area of about 1 3/4 acres.

42 An operating model of the Redheffer perpetual-motion machine was exhibited in Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum in 1812 (see Eugene S. Ferguson [ed.], Early Engineering Reminiscences of George Escol Sellers (1815-40) [U.S. National Museum Bulletin 238] [Washington, 1964], pp. 84-86). A carnival atmosphere pervaded Jacob Perkins' Adelaide Gallery in London around 1830 as he demonstrated steam guns, diving bells, and the like (see ibid., pp. 131 ff.). In American Journal of Education, XX (1870), 445, the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers mentioned "A gallery of experiments and of machines in motion, the plan of which was prepared as long ago as 1849, has been completed in the old church; reservoirs of water in the tower, and two steam engines, together of 30-horsepower, serve to keep in motion a great number of hydraulic machines and machine tools."

43 Kaempffert, op. cit., pp. 3-12.

44 Notes on collecting in England for the Ford Museum appear in A. Stowers "The Preservation of Historic Machinery and its Problems," Newcomen Society, Transactions, XXVIII (1951-53), 207-23, particularly pp. 211-13.

45 Silliman and Goodrich, op. cit., p. 19.

46 Carlos E. Cummings, East Is East and West Is West (Buffalo, N.Y., 1940), p. 33. Cummings was director of the Buffalo Museum of Science. This book is about the lessons that museum people may learn at world's fairs. Paraphrasing Mr. Cummings' apologies to sponsors whose exhibits he criticized, I apologize to the author for criticizing the ideas in his book. In my opinion, many of the errors of thinking in museum operation are set forth in this book, but they are not labeled as errors.

47 US. National Museum, Annual Report (1896-97, Part 2) [A Memorial of George Brown Goode], p. 73.

48 Laurence V. Coleman, The Museum in America (3 vols.; Washington, 1939), I, 277.

49 Jevons, op. cit., p. 55. The chapter on "Use and Abuse of Museums" was written in 1881. The South Kensington Museum was opened in the evening, with "brilliant lighting" (details not specified) as early as 1857. The evening hours were considered by Henry Cole to "furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace." See American Journal of Education, XXII (1871), 55-56.

50 Jevons, op. cit., p. 56.

51 Le Palais de la Découverte, in Paris, is an example of the museum that attempts to teach physical principles through exhibits. I estimated (this is an opinion, of course), when I visited the Palais in 1959, that two-thirds of the exhibit space was employed to do things much better left to books.

52 Jevons, op. cit., p. 66.

53 Atlantic Monthly, XXXIX (January, 1877), 100.

54 U.S. National Museum, Annual Report (1896-97, Part 2) [A Memorial of George Brown Goode], p. 197.

55 Ibid., p. 214.

56 Ibid., pp. 196, 197.

57 For example, a remarkable series of fundamental papers on such subjects as the making of fire and the drilling of holes appeared in the U.S. National Museum] Annual Report while Goode was director.

58 Cummings, op. cit., p. 50

59 A painting by a former curator (d. 1831) of the central hall of the museum shows that only minor rearrangements have been made.

60 The machine is admirably described in Bern Dibner, "The Great Van Marum Electrical Machine," The Natural Philosopher, II (New York, 1963), 87-103.

61 In view of the extensive and meticulous research that good labels require, it is unfortunate that curators are not encouraged (by universal usage) to append notes on the sources of their information.

62 The effectiveness of intelligent, trained guides is being demonstrated in a of the smaller museums—-for example, Hagley Museum and Shelburne Musuem. The effectiveness of each individual guide in a large museum would not necessarily be reduced because of the larger total attendance.