Go back to article: Pilgrimages to the museums of the new age: appropriating European industrial museums in New York City (1927–1937)

Concluding remarks: the transformation of a cultural institution

Only ten years separate the reverential accounts of European industrial museums by the first American ‘pilgrims’ from Robert Shaw’s dismissive report. This is the time it took for industrial museums to be transformed into a new type of institution in the United States, due to an ideological shift in the interest groups behind it: from Taylorist engineers and industrialists involved in the vocational education movement to corporate industrial scientists fully committed to the behaviourist paradigm of social control through mass communications.

In the 1920s, the travels by American curators and trustees shaped the diffusion and first attempts at standardisation of these cultural institutions in the United States through the circulation of objects, personnel and techniques of display across the Atlantic.[34] The film Museums of the New Age reflects the context of the initial appropriation of industrial museums in the United States, marked by the absence of the state and the political agenda of the vocational education movement. As the 1930s unfolded, however, European industrial museums ceased to be perceived as suitable models. The 1937 report by Robert Shaw reflects how the corporate responses to the threats posed by the Depression’s political agitation had brought about a new exhibitionary culture that ended up redefining American museums of science and industry and shaping them in directions that departed from museums in Europe.

The New York Museum of Science and Industry is an interesting case study for seeing this transformation in action as it was reorganised each time it moved. From an envisioned temple-like space in a park, to the streamlined spaces of the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. From a focus in the past through a historical permanent collection sequentially displayed, to a focus in the present through corporate temporary exhibitions. From a paternalistic will to morally uplift the working classes through vocational education to a behaviourist management of a mass public. From preservation, commemoration, and the fostering of national productivity, to a ludic socialisation through push buttons in the corporate discourses on science and technology.

We could look at this transformation of the interwar museums of science and industry in the United States as one of the links in the chain connecting the cultural model of the national industrial museums with the ‘interactive’ science centres of the second half of the twentieth century. Of course, there are many differences between both cultural forms, since they were shaped by the very different Depression and Cold War contexts of the 1930s and the 1960s. But there also are shared features between the interwar museums of science and industry and the science centres with no historical collection and a strong appeal to ‘interactivity’ which proliferated in the United States from the 1960s onwards, presenting decontextualized scientific principles with a top-down rhetoric of public understanding of science (Rader and Cain, 2014, chapter 6). A new wave, this time coming from the American side of the Atlantic, changed the way science and technology were displayed in Europe and all over the world. This is of course a complex and different story which deserves further research, but it probably cannot be fully understood without taking into account the transformations reflected in the reports of the interwar ‘pilgrims’ to what were once seen as museums of a new age.



The research for this article received funding from the Programa de Formación del Profesorado Universitario (FPU) of the Spanish Ministry of Education (AP2007-01538) and the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (UID/HIS/00286/2013). A previous version of this article was presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the Gesellschaft für Technikgeschichte (Berlin, June 2011). I am very grateful to Tim Boon for providing me access to the film Museums of the New Age, and to the staff at the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History, the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Manuscripts Collection of the New York Historical Society, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology for their assistance and help. I am also very grateful to Ana Rita Amaral, Catarina Madruga, Marlene Schock, Ignacio Suay-Matallana, Jaume Valentines-Álvarez and two anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160606/005