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

Museums of the new age

But the ‘pilgrimages’ didn’t stop here. The internal report by Rice, Mitman and Roe was complemented by a remarkable document of a very different nature. Charles T Gwynne, trustee of the museum and executive vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, was commissioned to undertake a promotional campaign aimed at publicising the project among New York elites in order to raise additional funds. In July 1927, Gwynne sailed to Europe with film director Arthur Edwin Krows and cameraman Walter P Pritchard, and came back with nine reels of motion picture. The results of the trip were three films and a book documenting the main industrial museums of the old continent.  Both the book and what contemporary sources called ‘the principal film’ (see note 17) were titled Museums of the New Age: A Study of World Progress in Industrial Education (Gwynne, 1927a and 1927b).

In the winter of 1927–28, the films were shown to several groups of bankers, businessmen and manufacturers who might eventually become potential donors. Beyond the above mentioned luncheon at the Metropolitan Club, well-attended screenings were organised at the Great Hall of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, on 20 December 1927, and at the premises of the Bronx Board of Trade, on 17 January 1928.  In the Bronx, the event started with a brief talk by President George Kunz, introducing the project of the Museum of the Peaceful Arts, followed by Charles Gwynne and Arthur Krows commenting on the silent films as they were projected on the screen.  By using motion pictures to reinforce oral and written discourse, the trustees hoped to seduce the audience by impressing more vividly on them what they saw as the greatness and the educational value of the ‘museums of the new age’.

Let’s now turn off the lights and get ready for the show. The film Museums of the New Age starts with an appeal to the worldview of its intended audience by presenting European industrial museums as a political answer to a pressing social problem of the times. In the first scene, a rotating terrestrial globe is followed by modern ocean liners, trains, planes and automobiles, conveying the idea that the world was becoming a smaller and ever more interconnected place. Industrialisation was ushering in a new age, but also causing new social problems. A sequence in which a businessman is working at his office desk is used to point out that the production of the ordinary objects he daily took for granted – his glasses, his hat, his telephone, his cigar – implied the existence of large and complex technological networks. Forgetting or ignoring the increasing interdependence on which the industrial enterprise was based entailed a very serious danger, visually represented in the film by the images of a ballot box and two workers, a man and a boy: if the working class didn’t get to understand, and thus commit itself to preserve, the fine and complex social structure of modern industrial society as a whole, it was likely to ‘forget interests beside his own’, and succumb to abstentionism or to dangerous political options. Then, a sequence showing long queues of Munich schoolchildren in front of the Deutsches Museum, ‘awaiting treatment to give them character’ (Gwynne, 1927a, 05.06), points to the solution found in Europe: education through industrial museums.

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The rhetoric of the book also echoed the paternalistic approach of the vocational education movement:

‘For the security of the nation, for the uprightness of the individual, for the welfare of the world [...] the worker must be shown the relationship of his industry to him as well as his relationship to that industry [...] Fortunately for America the need for industrial education in the modern sense became acute first in Europe. Nations less richly endowed with natural resources and room for expansion, found their economic problems much aggravated by the rigors of a world war; and in this exigency they evolved as one panacea this entirely novel idea of an industrial museum. The European museums, in several cases, were founded as such many years ago; but in their present aspects they are distinctly new and different’ (Gwynne, 1927b, p 9).

Gwynne pointed to the interwar period as the zenith of a new cultural form shaped by what we would call the peculiar technoscientific geopolitics of the twentieth century. He tried to define it by establishing the similarities and the differences between the main European industrial museums. He acknowledged that they all had different policies: the Deutsches Museum was characterised by its international character, its encyclopaedic ambitions and its historical approach; the Technisches Museum by only showing the high spots of industrial development; the Science Museum by being more commemorative of national inventors and by showing the applications of science to industry; and, finally, the Conservatoire by being mainly aimed at technical and vocational education students. But at the same time they all shared several common goals and methods that made them a single cultural form that could and should be transplanted into the United States.

One of these shared goals was the preservation of a historical collection of technological masterpieces and the commemoration of national inventors. The film shows how the European museums displayed originals and reproductions of ancient technological relics and praises the historical reconstructions of an old smithy in Vienna and an eighteenth-century apothecary’s shop in Munich (Gwynne, 1927a, 27.37-28.48). The book justifies the creation of museums of science and industry as a way to prevent shameful situations such as the fact that Edison had been compelled to donate his original phonograph to the Science Museum because he had not been able to find any institution in the United States suitable to preserve it (Gwynne, 1927b, p 7).

But the greatest emphasis is put on another shared feature: techniques of display. Let’s go back to join Munich’s schoolchildren and go into the Deutsches Museum with them. Once inside, the viewer is constantly presented with machines in movement: exhibition halls with enormous steam engines at work, pistons going rhythmically up and down, or a modern water-turbine spinning powerfully. In the film, and in many descriptive passages of the book, Gwynne underlined that ‘the first different impression that one obtains in visiting the industrial museums [...] is that exhibits move’ (Gwynne, 1927b, p 20). In these new institutions, suited for a new and dynamic machine age, ‘everything seemed fairly to pulsate’ (Ibidem).

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Wondering at the technological sublime (Nye, 1994) was not the only goal of putting machines in motion. Gwynne insisted on the fact that operating exhibits helped visitors to understand how a machine worked or what were the steps of a technical process. In this regard, it was also important to open the black box and peer into the interior of machines. The film shows how all European industrial museums used sectioned artefacts, both originals and models, in order to satisfy the ‘human craving to see inside of things’ (Gwynne, 1927a, 08.48), and illustrates the educational virtues of this method through scenes in which an attendant explains how wheels move in a sectioned locomotive, a visitor inspects the engine and the brakes of an automobile, or another visitor examines a full-size sectioned U-boat.

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For Gwynne, however, the educational method that defined the essence of European industrial museums were visitor-operated exhibits.[19] In the United States, the Deutsches Museum was synonymous with visitor participation. Julius Rosenwald, the founder of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, had always repeated that the idea of promoting an industrial museum came to him after seeing his young son tirelessly having fun by turning cranks and pulling levers at the Deutsches Museum. But it was not only about having fun. According to Gwynne, the educational effectiveness increased if the visitor was able to explore the exhibits on his own:

‘Handling points to the basic departure of new from old. There has been a radical change in educational approach. Those in charge today realize that “knowledge is doing” – the profoundest pedagogical principle ever enunciated. This principle, in successful practice, is the real outstanding possession of these amazing twentieth-century institutions’ (Gwynne, 1927b, p 23).

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The film features countless scenes in which visitors handle exhibits, push buttons, activate mechanisms, or turn cranks. Many of them are children, like the boy who activates a model of Hero’s aeolipile and the boy who presses a button to make an air-drill work, who seems to be from the working class. Despite the initial rhetorical emphasis on workers as targeted publics, the fact is that most visitors appearing in the film seem to be bourgeois or white-collar workers, portrayed in a markedly gendered way. While young men explore the hands-on experiments at the physics section, a young woman smells ‘delicate coal-tar-perfumes’ (Gwynne, 1927a, 14.50) from cases containing flower pots and another one demonstrates how electric buttons are perfect for handling ‘even delicate and precious machines’ (Gwynne, 1927a, 20.00) from a safe distance.

After having praised European industrial museums both for their inspiring iconic status and their advanced educational practices, the film ends with images of ‘the greatest industrial museum in all the world’ (Gwynne, 1927a, 45.12): a semi-deserted plot where construction work is going on while an overground subway arrives to a nearby station surrounded by a field of grass combed by the wind. It was the site of the old Jerome Park Reservoir, in the Bronx, where the Museum of the Peaceful Arts hoped to erect its projected building, inspired by the temple-like neoclassical architecture of the European national museums, which were referred to in the film as ‘castles of science’ (Gwynne, 1927a, 07.34).[20] The last thing that the viewer sees before the screen goes black is the land where the museums of the new age were to be transplanted in New York City. But how did they finally materialise?

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160606/003