Conn (History/Ohio State Univ.) surveys the age when museums ruled the intellectual firmament of the US and why they...



Conn (History/Ohio State Univ.) surveys the age when museums ruled the intellectual firmament of the US and why they unhappily passed the torch to their university competition. For 50 years, starting shortly after the end of the Civil War, American museums served as centers for the production of knowledge. This was, Conn makes clear, because taxonomic stability reigned, and classification and categorization alone were thought to convey knowledge, an ""object-based epistemology"" in which the museum's systematics--a sort of narrative of the glass case--charted the course from simple to complex, savage to civilized, ancient to modern. The museum served to legitimize not just the conspicuously consumed fortunes of their founders, reflecting values associated with bourgeois acquisitiveness. By creating, reifying, and institutionalizing their categories, museums also held the power to shape a patron's understanding of the meaning of the objects on display, and an ideology became sanctioned: the best of nature was human, the best of civilization was Western culture, the best of human creativity was Western art. The elite's visual education of the polyglot masses was a tool of oppression. But there was a snake in the museum garden: ""By 1926 . . . object-based epistemology ceased to be persuasive in a world now governed by electromagnetism, relativity, and quantum mechanics."" Theory and experimentation eclipsed classification as the intellectual's m.o., and universities became the venue of choice. All but art museums--where the worship, contemplation, and decorative function of the object remained paramount--lost their epistemological role; natural history, commercial, technological, anthropological museums went dioramic and interactive. Conn uses an excellent selection of examples, principally from Philadelphia (""Philadelphians were at the forefront of using museums to organize knowledge about the world"") to flesh out his points. These notions--the importance of museums, the epistemological power shift to the universities--will unlikely leave readers agog. They are too commonsensical and accessible, familiar even. Conn does present them with bright eagerness and erudition, gracefully and effectively.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1998

ISBN: 0226114937

Page Count: 301

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998