During the Age of Enlightenment, museums were cabinets of curiosities designed to showcase the inherent oddity or beauty of individual objects. Charles Willson Peale’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Philadelphia museum was a celebrated example, with its organized jumble of mounted animals, fossils, costumes, models, inventions and paintings. Peale’s 1822 self-portrait The Artist in His Museum shows its subject lifting a stage curtain to reveal bird specimens, portraits, a mastodon skeleton and a family of visitors. A painter’s palette and brushes rest on a table beside him, underlining the artifice of the scene.
Peale’s museum reflected a larger culture in which disciplinary divisions had not yet hardened. Benjamin Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, one of the many organizations he founded (and at one point home to Peale’s enterprise), concerned itself with both humanistic and scientific inquiry. With interests in everything from electricity and ocean currents to statecraft and the art of satire, Franklin himself embodied the polymath ideal.
Our more specialized, pedigreed age insists on separate history, science and art museums, each with its own curators and conventions of display. Art museums, to a large extent, remain cabinets of curiosities, with objects in the permanent collection likely grouped by country, period and artist (though thematic arrangements are becoming more common). Special exhibitions may tell larger stories about history or culture, and newer installations—such as the Art of the Americas Wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—may use multimedia devices and touch-screen technology to enrich their displays. But the object remains primary, as it did in old natural history collections.
By contrast, at science centers such as San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the emphasis is on storytelling and explanation, facilitated by replicas, games, videos, sound effects, touch-screen displays, immersive environments and other techniques in the modern museum armamentarium. Here the traditional artifact has all but vanished, replaced by experiences like the Franklin Institute’s iconic walk through a giant plastic heart.
History museums have occupied an often contested, and therefore endlessly fascinating, middle ground. In Who Owns America’s Past?, Robert C. Post, a curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History, tries to define the battle and its stakes. He describes the Smithsonian Institution as ricocheting between two poles, which he labels “artifact-centered neo-traditionalism” and “postmodern contextualism.”
Though a useful starting point, Post’s scheme is inadequate as an explanation of evolving trends in museum display. It conflates not just design and content but two diametrically opposed approaches: the construction of master narratives to link disparate artifacts, and the dismantling of those narratives. His precise views on just how history museums should tell stories and exhibit their collections remain murky.
Consider the pivotal instance of the Smithsonian’s failed Enola Gay anniversary exhibition, which exposed the messy process of producing historical narratives in a museum setting. The show’s planned centerpiece was an uncommonly powerful artifact: part of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Fifty years on, that artifact was supposed to introduce a complicated historiographical debate about the decision to use the bomb and its consequences— a goal the show accomplished, in a very crude sense, before it could be mounted.