Lessons From the Great Depression

Marjorie Schwarzer


Department of Museum Studies

John F. Kennedy University

Berkeley, CA


The 1920s was a booming decade for the museum field in the United States: grand new architecture, burgeoning collections, exciting ideas about education, imaginative new kinds of exhibitions like towering habitat dioramas and elegant period rooms. Then in October 1929 the stockmarket crashed and with it the optimistic energy that had propelled the museum boom. Suddenly, those working in and running museums – many of which had been founded only a few years earlier -- needed to decide whether they should keep going on or strike out in directions. Sound familiar? In this talk, I will recount how museums responded to the Great Depression as a springboard for looking at the current economic crisis that has come on the heels of last decade’s surge in museum square footage. In many cases, Depression-era museums developed innovative strategies – both educationally and operationally -- for propelling into the future. Interestingly, many of their actions inform how museums operate up to this day. In other cases, museums made short-sighted decisions – both philosophically and managerially – that locked them into a dangerous paradigm they still have not shifted away from. What lessons can we learn by looking at American museums during the Great Depression? We can learn about resilience, ingenuity and passion. But we can also learn about complacency, fear and groupthink. In this talk, using concrete examples, I will suggest that there are many lessons to be learned from the Great Depression that have resonance today, as museums decide whether they want to strike out or strike back.