museums made america a vibrant center of intellectual activity-- 9/06/19

Today's selection -- from Waking Giant by David S. Reynolds. By the middle of the 1800s, Americans had established a number of scientific institutions and museums that "made America a vibrant center of intellectual activity":

"In the eighteenth century, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and the American Acad­emy of Arts and Sciences in Boston were established. Two other Phila­delphia institutions, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Franklin Institute, came in 1812 and 1824, respectively. The Lyceum of Natural History in New York, chartered in 1818, led to the founding of New York University in 1831. The Lyceum later became the New York Academy of Sciences, which had over twenty thousand members by the early twenty-first century. Together, these institutes and the journals several of them produced made America a vibrant center of intellectual activity, especially in the natural sciences.

"Most of these centers were research-oriented, though some of them, like the Franklin Institute and the Smithsonian [established in 1846], soon became popular museums. They joined a growing number of American museums whose aim was to introduce science to the masses. The spread of scientific knowledge was thought to promote American freedoms. At the open­ing ceremony of the Franklin Institute, a speaker typically urged Amer­icans 'to encourage institutions calculated to diffuse knowledge among the people .... It will insure to us religious, political and personal freedom; and will, sooner or later, by our example, lead to the emancipation of the world.'

The American Philosophical Society

"From the start, American museums tried to appeal to average people. When the scientist and painter Charles Willson Peale opened his museum in Philadelphia in 1786, he designed it specifically for the gen­eral public, in contrast to Europeans, who typically expected museums to appeal only to the social elite. Along with the usual specimens of natural history, Peale introduced the mastodon, the first large animal skeleton exhibited in America. By the early 1820s, the Peale family had also opened museums in Baltimore and New York, with the former specializing in animals and the latter in oddities like a live cannibal, Siamese twins, a five-legged cow with two tails, and a musician who could play twelve instruments (six at a time).

"Such curiosities increasingly filled American museums. Although nature itself produced wondrous animals, plants, and minerals that mu­seums continued to feature, the American public, hungry for the kind of thrills provided by the era's sensational penny papers, also enjoyed other fare. Wax figures of celebrities from President Jackson to notori­ous criminals were sure draws, as were the tosmorama (a box with a lens that magnified images), the zcetrope or wheel of life (in which scenes mounted on a rotating wheel seemed to move when viewed through a slit), and the diorama (at the time meaning a tremendous painting on rollers that also gave a sense of motion). Joseph Dorfeuille's Western Museum in Cincinnati was filled with waxworks, freaks, and other diversions-most notably a panorama of hell in a cavernous room filled with lakes of fire, walking skeletons, people-eating snakes, and humans with animals' heads."



David S. Reynolds


Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2008 by David S. Reynolds


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