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

European ‘Grand Tours’

In 1913, gemmologist George Kunz, who was Tiffany’s vice-president and curator of the American Museum of Natural History, gathered a good part of New York’s industrial, engineering and financial elites around his project for what was planned to become the largest industrial museum in the world: the Museum of the Peaceful Arts. Among the stated goals, there were the preservation of the national technological landmarks and the fostering of national productivity through the promotion of invention (Kunz, 1913). The museum was incorporated in 1914, but the First World War stopped the plans, which were only resumed when Henry R Towne, a wealthy industrialist and a fervent Taylorist, died in 1924 and bequeathed his fortune to the establishment of an industrial museum in New York City, on the condition that other donors could be found.[6]

The new institution, still headed by Kunz, immediately looked to Europe – and Europe answered back. In November 1925, Oskar von Miller, who untiringly acted as a missionary spreading the gospel of the industrial museum idea all over the world (Lindqvist, 1993), visited the United States to give support and advice to the museums that were being projected in Chicago and New York.[7] The first action of the board of trustees of both museums was to plan for study trips abroad. The Museum of the Peaceful Arts allocated 50,000 dollars from Towne’s bequest for travels in order to look for suitable models. In Chicago, Waldemar Kaempffert, the newly hired director of the museum, immediately embarked on a two-month European trip (Pridmore, pp 31–32).

These study trips invariably included a detailed analysis of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the Technisches Museum in Vienna, the Science Museum in London, and the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. These were the four institutions that had been canonised by Charles Richards’ influential book The Industrial Museum, which became a sort of Bible for the industrial museum movement. In 1924, Richards had been commissioned by the General Education Board to tour Europe in order to make a comparative survey of the biggest industrial museums.[8] The resulting book systematically compared them in terms of scope, history, building, administration, finance, structure and divisions, collection, techniques of display, educational activities and internal organisation of the staff. The high level of quantitative detail, including illustrations and budgets, was aimed at providing a practical guide for transplanting this cultural institution into the United States (Richards, 1925).

Richards, who would eventually become the director of the New York Museum of Science and Industry between 1931 and 1934, had been an omnipresent figure both in the movement for the promotion of vocational education and the industrial museum movement.[9] Significantly, the same key characters involved in the 1910s in the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education were also behind the foundation of industrial museums a decade later. As historian Russell Jones has convincingly argued, both initiatives must be read as part of an ideological battle for cultural hegemony. The ultimate aim of the promoters was to morally uplift workers and to propagate a deterministic idea of an autonomous technology in order to soothe labour unrest by presenting corporate capitalism as an unavoidable result of internal technological progress (Jones, 2001; Wallace, 1996).[10]

Richards presented European industrial museums as institutions of great cultural and political significance. According to him, they should provide modern men with the awareness of their role in a too complex industrial society. Unlike any village in India, where all the production processes could be directly witnessed on the streets, or at the shops of the artisans, western industrial societies hid its most basic processes behind factory walls. Industrial museums had to metaphorically tear those walls down in order to ‘reveal to the eye [...] the industrial basis of our present-day life’ (Richards, 1925, p 2).

According to Richards, the European industrial museums achieved this goal by using a historical approach which presented the main steps of the evolution of every branch of industry – each corresponding to a basic human need – from the early times to the present. While the Conservatoire, more focused on technical education in a narrower sense, was a repository that fell short of excellence in this regard, Richards portrayed the Deutsches Museum as an example of how this could be achieved through didactic exhibition methods, and the smaller Technisches Museum as the ideal model upon which to base the importation of this institution into the United States.[11]

Despite having Richards’ detailed guidelines available, the Museum of the Peaceful Arts sent their own ‘pilgrims’ abroad. In the spring of 1926, engineer Calvin Rice, who was the secretary of both the museum and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, departed for a two-month European trip in order to study the four main industrial museums, and the trustees travelling to Europe that summer were also requested to report on the fields they were acquainted with.[12] That autumn, a special committee consisting of Calvin Rice, Carl Mitman and Joseph Roe was formed with the purpose of analysing the information gathered by all the ‘pilgrims’ and writing a report for internal use with practical recommendations.[13]

The report dealt with issues such as location, architectural style, building costs, sources of income, staff, or operating expenses, which were systematically studied through a comparative analysis and interviews with the directors of the main European museums. It also included two detailed full scripts of the transportation and machine-tools sections, elaborated by Mitman and Roe, which combined a typological and a historical approach.[14] The report emphasised the need for working closely with industries, and argued that each industrial sector should be more or less prominently featured according to its relative importance in the region. This was established through a quantitative and comparative assessment taking into consideration variables such as the annual value of products, the average number of wage earners, or the number of companies in each sector. Thus, while agriculture should have a prominent position in Chicago, the sectors that should have a stronger representation in New York were textile, machine-tools, transportation, and electrical and chemical industries. Emphasis was also put on the need for acquiring first the machines that were representative of the current state of the sector so that workers and the public in general could be better instructed.[15]

The archaeocentric approach by Richards and the more contempocentric approach by Rice, Mitman and Roe reflect the two overlapping tendencies which shaped the initial importation of European industrial museums into New York City. In terms of their European referents, the first one embraced the philosophy of the Deutsches Museum, while the second one was more inspired by the Conservatoire. In both cases, the American background was the rhetoric of the vocational education movement. On the one hand, industrial museums should give individual workers, and citizens in general, an awareness of their role in the broader social scheme – as seen through the managerial lens. On the other hand, they should increase the level of technical competence in the country, as well as provide a venue in which to train visitors in the character-building moral qualities deriving from manual work.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160606/002