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

From cathedrals of a new age to old-fashioned storehouses

The high ambitions clashed with the museum’s chronic financial and institutional instability. The fifteen acres of the Jerome Park Reservoir site were never granted by the City Council, and the museum started an itinerant journey throughout Manhattan. From 1927 to 1929 it was provisionally established on the 7th and 8th floors of the Scientific American building, next to Bryant Park. Then it moved to the 3rd and 4th floors of the Daily News building, where it stayed until 1936, when it finally settled at the ground floor of the Rockefeller Center.

When the renamed New York Museum of Science and Industry moved to the Daily News building, Charles Richards was hired as director of the museum and applied the ideas developed in his 1925 book to the pilot permanent sections. In an attempt to replicate European industrial museums, Richards favoured a historical sequential approach and structured the museum in broad functional sections, such as clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, or food cultivation (Sastre-Juan, 2013). In this process of importing the contents and methods of display of the ‘museums of the new age’, the international network established through the ‘pilgrimages’ proved useful for the circulation not only of ideas, but of exhibits as well. Complementing the existing collection and the production of the museum’s own workshops, a substantial number of exhibits were commissioned to European museums, such as a replica of a Spinning Jenny made at the Science Museum, models of Egyptian and Viking ships made at the Deutsches Museum, or a copy of a Vaucanson lathe from the Conservatoire.[21]

The move to the Rockefeller Center in 1936 went hand in hand with a transformation of the museum. A new board of trustees replaced Taylorist engineers with executives of big techno-scientific corporations, and a close collaboration with the Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation turned the museum into a laboratory for developing techniques of display borrowed from commercial exhibition practices (Niquette and Buxton, 2009). The 1933–34 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition had triggered a new corporate culture of display based on the portrayal of industrial ‘applied science’ as the key to abundance and progress (Rydell, 1985), which was directly transferred to the New York Museum of Science and Industry. Frank Jewett, the new president of the museum, who was the director of the Bell Laboratories and vice-president of ATT, had also been the president of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Chicago Fair. And Robert Shaw, the new director, who had worked at the Exposition as the Committee’s secretary, was no longer an engineer linked with the vocational education movement, but a representative example of the new breed of exhibition designers who relied on advertising, public relations and behaviourist psychology (Marchand, 1998).

At the Rockefeller Center, a streamlined interior design and a massive use of pushbuttons were the main feature of a museum that presented itself as an ever-changing show. The New York Museum of Science and Industry stopped building a historical collection and started favouring temporary exhibitions of contemporary industrial research, surrounded by a background of reduced permanent sections. The dominant syntax of the museum’s displays changed from Richards’ progressive series to a story-line approach aimed at showing how the research done at corporate laboratories was advancing science and benefiting the country.[22] An example is DuPont’s ‘Better things for better living...through chemistry’, which was displayed in several museums of science and industry as part of the company’s public relations campaign to restore its damaged reputation (Rhees, 1993).

Figure 2

Black and white photographic postcard showing practical uses of chemistry and the caption better things for better living through chemistry

Promotional postcard of the DuPont Company’s exhibit ‘Better things for better living...through chemistry’ at the New York Museum of Science and Industry, 1937

As these mutations took place, the perception of European industrial museums changed significantly among the staff of the New York Museum of Science and Industry. In October 1937, Robert Shaw departed for a one-month European trip funded by the Carnegie Corporation. The aim was to study the display techniques at the new Palais de la Découverte, in Paris, but also to tour the other European industrial museums. In sharp contrast with what his predecessors wrote a decade before, his report no longer praised the Conservatoire, the Deutsches Museum and the Science Museum as suitable models.[23]

Shaw, who was no longer interested in educating the working classes, but in spreading the desired message to the ‘average men’, questioned the high educational value that Gwynne had attributed to industrial museums. While, according to Gwynne, ‘the modern industrial museums are striving constantly to run their exhibits from the visitor’s point of view’ (Gwynne, 1927b, p 25), for Shaw their sheer size was a handicap that tended to ‘discourage and confuse the average visitor’ by showing too much detail and unimportant steps so that ‘one cannot see the forest for the trees’.[24] After spending four days going through the several sections of the Deutsches Museum, he concluded that despite the undeniable quality of its historical collections it was just an awe-provoking ‘monument to science and industry’ that overwhelmed visitors to the extent that it was uncertain whether they learnt anything ‘besides seeing an impressive spectacle’.[25]

While Gwynne had devoted a substantial part of his film to praise European industrial museums for having pioneered in the most advanced exhibition techniques, Shaw considered, to the contrary, that they were ‘out of date’[26]:

‘[at the Deutsches Museum] no attempt is made to employ modern technique of display. It is in no sense of the word a modern museum. No use is made of present day architectural forms, color effects, and exhibit illumination. This is, however, perfectly understandable, as the museum was built in a period that held very different concepts of these matters.’[27]

The Conservatoire and the Science Museum received a similar diagnosis – if not worse. The Conservatoire was basically described as a poorly attended museum, the old-fashioned and static exhibits of which were only aimed at trade schools and vocational education students.[28] At the South Kensington Museum, despite its gorgeous original collections, ‘too much material was shown in an uninteresting manner, under poor light, and in a storehouse atmosphere’.[29] Except for the Children’s Gallery, which Shaw considered ‘the best thing at the Science Museum’ and thought that ‘it should have been called by some more appropriate title such as “The Museum’s Room of Modern Display”’, the rest of the museum ‘lacked dramatic appeal’.[30]

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of schoolgirls lifting weights using pulleys at a museum exhibition

Girls lifting weights and reading labels at the Pulley Block Exhibit of the Science Museum’s Children’s Gallery, 1951 – the exhibit had been part of the Children’s Gallery since its inauguration in 1931

According to Shaw, museographical modernity was now much better represented in Europe by the approach of the Palais de la Découverte, which departed in many ways from the older industrial museums. The Palais had been promoted and designed by the French university scientific elite, who vindicated itself through a display of contemporary research presented as pure science in the service of the People, in tune with the rhetorics of the left-wing government of the Front Populaire. The deliberate focus on scientific principles was a strategy by socialist Jean Perrin, and the other promoters of the Palais, for legitimising the contemporary creation of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Eidelman, 1988).[31]

Paradoxically, this state-controlled institution run by left-wing scientists was the European museum that appealed the most to Shaw’s corporate-oriented taste. Shaw described the Palais as ‘the best scientific exhibition ever presented’ and praised it both in terms of content and display techniques.[32] According to him, the outstanding features of the Palais were its broad scope, its depiction of contemporary science, its relatively small size, its modern and functional architecture and interior design, and its excellent use of colour and illumination. His only criticisms were aimed at features which departed from the usual practice at the museums of science and industry in the United States: the use of lecturer-demonstrators, instead of operating exhibits; the excessive focus on pure science, forgetting the practical technological applications of scientific principles; and the fact that it was too high brow.[33]

Despite this appreciation and praise of the Palais de la Découverte, the geographies of museographical modernity had shifted, and better models could now be found much closer to home. In 1939, Shaw was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation to make a survey of the two world’s fairs in New York and San Francisco. The resulting book, an exhaustive and detailed compilation of the most popular and successful techniques of display at the Fairs, aimed at becoming a reference guide in the field, clearly points to the growing distance between European industrial museums and American museums of science and industry (New York Museum of Science and Industry, 1940).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160606/004