Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/The Advantages of Limited Museums


BY a museum I do not mean a storehouse of things curious in art or nature—a repository of curiosities, as Worcester defines the word, although in most large towns there are places called museums, and realizing his definition—but a building in which are collected books, and natural or artificial objects that relate to, and are preserved, classified, and conveniently arranged to illustrate, one or more departments of knowledge, and from which objects of mere curiosity are excluded. Assuming that this description is sufficiently accurate and comprehensive for present purposes, it would seem that a museum should be regarded primarily as an instrument to communicate knowledge, and its growth subordinated to such instrumentality that the efficiency of the instrument may be assured. But the instrumentality is passive, not active, and consists in being a repository or source of knowledge for all that choose to avail themselves of it.

Knowledge really valuable, subjectively considered, is thorough; and therefore the instrument of its communication should be adapted and adequate to the purpose to which it is to be applied. Thorough knowledge is not a general acquaintance with everything, but knowing masterfully what one professes to know. If a museum is a storehouse from which knowledge is to be drawn, as knowledge is of many kinds, the repository should be so filled that nothing is wanting. But in most cases this is impossible. There is no reason, theoretically, forbidding an attempt to form a general museum which shall lack nothing necessary to its integrity, but practically failure is certain to result from the want of sufficient means. This difficulty is encountered the world over, and in part has led to the establishment of special museums—natural science, natural history, archaeological museums, and the like.

This much premised, we now proceed to the subject of this paper, museums in the Western part of the United States. Respecting these museums we lay down two propositions: 1. They should be limited, not general museums; 2. That each one should select some specialty, and the more distinctly its boundary-lines are drawn the better, even if it be necessary, on the one side or the other, to run them somewhat arbitrarily as to inclusions and exclusions.

The value of every collection intended for scientific purposes and public use—books, natural science objects, ethnographical specimens, it matters not what—does not depend upon quantity or variety, but the completeness of its classes or their subdivisions. A reference library, for instance, that contained every publication of consequence relating to the Mississippi Valley, would be preferable to one more numerously supplied with books on American history, but wanting many in every department; or an archæological cabinet able to show all that can be shown of the flint implements of the United States, but little else besides, is of a higher order than one in which there are more and varied specimens, but every class incomplete. What thoroughness is to the intellect, completeness is to a museum; one, an adequate knowledge of whatever the mind professes specially to occupy itself with, its parts and its relations; the other, the possession of all the types, sorts, and varieties in fullness, or books, that go to make up one or more classes. If this view is correct, its practical acceptance may be insisted upon; for, if incorporated into a museum undertaking, not as a theory but what should be realized, it would, by keeping before it a definite and fixed aim, steady and direct effort into proper channels of activity, and check hap-hazard collecting.

It is the part of prudence to aim not at what may be theoretically desirable or best, but at what is practicable. How feeble are the resources, present and prospective, of any Western museum actually existing or likely to be formed; how totally inadequate to extended work; how hopeless the prospect of their large increase! On the other hand, how numerous are the specimens in any one division of the objects of which a museum may be the repository; how considerable is the expense of bringing them together and of their preservation! An archæological or a natural history collection, with its building and equipments, moderately furnished with specimens, and including its library, would probably represent a money value of hundreds of thousands of dollars; were either supplied with all that it properly includes, its real value would be deemed fabulous. What hope is there in these Western countries that an institution which attempted to cover the whole field of archæology, or of natural history, would ever be much more than a very incomplete affair? And, if special museums are practically fettered by such limitations, how much more general museums! Therefore, it appears to me that no museum should attempt to be more than a limited museum.

Besides limiting the scope of a museum, whether it includes several of the classes of objects that may find a place in its collections or not, some subdivision of a class should be made a specialty; for, unless this be done, there is little likelihood of the museum ever possessing a department which will be complete. How immense, for instance, is the number of individual objects necessary to represent, by a single specimen, each of its kind, the animal kingdom, with its six sub-kingdoms, their subdivisions, classes, orders, species, and varieties, already known, from the dawn of animal life down to our own day, besides species and varieties yet to be discovered! It were useless to compute what the formation of a complete natural history collection involves. Under circumstances far more favorable than any Western museum is likely to find itself in within a century, three generations would have passed, and such a collection still remain little more than a skeleton; whereas, a subdivision of a class, say flint implements of an archæological collection, to cite another illustration, is something manageable, but to bring even it to completeness is no small undertaking. Of course, there is a difference between one class and another, one subdivision and another, as regards the plentifulness or scarcity of material necessary to its formation, and the facility or difficulty with which it may be obtained; but I doubt whether a complete collection of the flint implements of North America could be made in twenty years, and, were an attempt made to include the flint implements of the world, it would be simply courting failure.

Possibly it may be thought that a museum governed by what is advocated in this paper must progress slowly, and at best long remain a meager and insignificant affair. If progress consists in extending in every direction, the objection is well taken; but, if in an orderly advance toward a fixed point, it is not. But let us see how things would work in practice. A library, of which books relating to the Mississippi Valley are the specialty, completive of its specialty, would find itself in possession of a pretty large collection treating of the history, geography, and legislative affairs of the United States and Canada, and of their aboriginal races, books of statistics and travel, biographies, compilations of documents, histories of the three most prominent countries of Europe, including treatises on their laws and colonial regulations, and numerous publications relating to their religious and ecclesiastical affairs. Again, works on archæology or natural history are an integral part of an archæological or natural history museum, and included in its specialty, no matter what the specialty may be. But to cite the first, as sufficient for our purposes, its books would comprise many thousand titles, beginning with the Bible, and including Homer, Herodotus, and others of the ancients, a multitude of historical books, books of travels, works relating to the aboriginal populations of the world, besides the untold number of publications directly treating archæological topics. In fact, I much doubt whether any one who has not set himself to the task of ascertaining just what an archæological library includes can have even a vague notion of its diversity or extent. As to variety of specimens we shall see presently that it would not be wanting.

But, in insisting that a museum to attain to real excellence should pursue some specialty, it is not intended to limit the choice to any class or subdivision, for circumstances will determine the selection, or to exclude everything else; or, still less, to make the completion of the specialty its ultimate goal, for of all works a museum contains the most vigorous germ of progress, and practically can never be finished; but that the specialty shall be paramount until filled out to the utmost possible. When this term is reached, another subdivision in turn is made the specialty. An instance already cited will serve further to illustrate what is meant—an archæological museum that makes the flint implements of the United States its specialty. Its aim is to bring together every type, form, variety, and size of objects fashioned by flaking or chipping, of every material used, and in a general way from every locality in the country. But, as it is not possible practically to collect exclusively in one line, other objects will necessarily find their way into the museum at the same time. In exploring, or in acquiring at first hands, a variety of specimens is always obtained. An important source of increase are gifts, and gifts are taken as they come. It is a common thing to acquire collections already formed, and almost invariably they comprise a miscellaneous assortment. The same condition of things will exist, no matter to what objects the museum is devoted or what its specialty may be. Thus, the museum, however rigidly the specialty is kept paramount, in spite of the fact, will also increase in other subdivisions and classes.

What is done by rule and systematically is likely, in the long run, to be well done. But, in order to establish system and prescribe rule, it is requisite first to determine what can and what can not be done, and then what should be done for a reason apparently sufficient, having due regard to the limitations of circumstances and the necessities of the case. This has been my aim, and if I have failed to express myself with all the precision and clearness and fullness that could be desired, there is, nevertheless, I think, a strong, true meaning at bottom in what I have presented, that will approve itself to the thoughtful mind. This much I venture to insist upon, that whether what is advocated be accepted or not, it is, at least, a safe guide to orderly and systematic progress, and to completeness in one or more classes or subdivisions of a museum.