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Wonder in the Age of Reason: The “Other” History of Museums

Christopher B. Steiner

Connecticut College


Between 1841 and 1865 some 38 million visitors paid the 25 cents admission to enter P.T. Barnum’s “American Museum” on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City. The museum housed a bizarre collection of natural history and human oddities -- dioramas, a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus’ disciples sat, a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, phrenologists, the so-called Feejee Mermaid, a menagerie of exotic animals, and a freak show of giants and midgets, including the world famous 25-inch tall General Tom Thumb. In its day, Barnum’s American Museum enchanted mass audiences and, at the same time, was derided by the cultural elite who saw its popular amusements and sideshow attractions as nothing more than an illegitimate cultural form that made a mockery of the “museum” as it had been originally conceived and developed in Europe. On July 13, 1865 (to the delight of its critics) the American Museum and most of its collections burned to the ground -- never to re-open again.


Less than a decade after the American Museum was relegated to the ash heaps of history, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History both opened their doors to the public at the opposite end of Manhattan from the smoldering ruins of Barnum’s populist emporium. Conceived in direct opposition to Barnum’s museum, these new formidable institutions (one devoted to art, the other to science) recalibrated the starting point for an acceptable genealogy of American museums, and provided a legitimate model of the “museum” as an institution for the protection and projection of national culture and pride. It is this “official” history of museums in America that dominates the professional memory of institutional identity; and it is this history of museums that generally foregrounds any programmatic speculations on the future course of museums into the next century.


Yet, despite its dramatic demise in a ball of flames, the passing of Barnum’s American Museum did not bring to a definitive end the persistence of alternative or outsider museums that operate on the fringe of official museum culture. Indeed scores of museums in America continue to occupy the liminal space of unorthodox exhibitions -- of dubious intellectual value and questionable authenticity -- once dominated by Barnum’s populist model of the museum as a site of cultural spectacle and bewildering phenomena.

In this paper, I will explore the role of such alternative museum spaces in shaping both the “other” history of museums in America, and as a guide to better forecasting the future of museums as we head into the 21st century. Specifically, this paper will investigate the Nut Museum (in Old Lyme, Connecticut) as a illuminating case study of a museum operating on the fringes of official culture. Founded in her home in 1972 by artist Elizabeth Tashjian, the Nut Museum offered visitors an eclectic tour of nut-inspired sculptures and paintings, performances of the “Nut Anthem” and “Nuts are Beautiful” sung by Ms. Tashjian, and philosophical ramblings on the “nutty” origins of Man based on the suggestively procreative form of a massive 40-pound Coco de Mer.


Destabilizing and disorienting, the quirky and unconventional museum-visit offered an alternative to official museum spaces. And it is on the basis of this outsider alternative to official museum culture where we might begin to gain insight into a future of the 21st-century museum that traces its roots not only to the official history of museums in America but also to the silent history of museums that operate on the margins of legitimate culture.