A review of The New Museum by John Cotton Dana

John Cotton Dana
John Cotton Dana

There was one book I wanted to read immediately after graduating with my Master of Arts in Museum Studies and at the beginning my museum career: The New Museum: Selected Writings by John Cotton Dana.

This important book was published jointly by the American Alliance of Museums and The Newark Museum (almost 20 years ago!) to ensure that Dana’s voice would continue to influence the philosophy and management of museums.  Dana is one of the founders of the modern museum movement, the new museology.  His thoughts and writings should be easily accessible to us today, and this book makes that a reality.

I first encountered Dana in my Introduction to Museum Education class.  We read his essay “The New Museum.”  It’s a manifesto of sorts that all museum professionals should read and keep close by.

Dana was writing 100 years ago, but his thoughts about museums and American society remain fresh and relevant to us today.

The core of Dana’s philosophy is that museums should be useful to people and their communities.  In order to be useful, Dana believes museums should:

Be educational institutions.  We all agree at this point that museums educate.  “Schools and Museums” is another essay included in this book, and one of Dana’s most important writings.  He believes that museums should not compete with schools in educating the public, but should rather support schools in education.  The best way to do this is by supporting teachers in making lessons more interesting and instructive for students, day in and day out.  “If a museum is used by pupils to the extent only of a visit or two each year, it is not a museum that can be properly alluded to as an aide to schools,” he writes in this essay (p. 190).  So much for thinking that hosting those yearly school trips to the museum is getting the job done.

Be of service to their communities.  There are a number of ways Dana says museums can do this:

  • By helping industry create better design and workmanship (p. 111).
  • By helping communities develop skilled labor (p. 187).
  • By exhibiting the work of local artists and industry. Dana believes museums should increase the understanding and appreciation of local products, and that exhibition of these products could aid “Buy in America” campaigns (p. 154).
  • By promoting international understanding and relations. Dana notes that a Newark Museum exhibition about Colombia helped reduce tensions between that country and the United States (p. 160).
  • By promoting the appreciation of the heritage and skill of immigrants. Immigration remains a heated political topic in our day and Dana suggests museums can help create understanding within our own communities (p. 161).
  • By making the life of the community “more gracious and livable” (p. 174). Dana’s ideas that museums can contribute to a community’s health are now very much in vogue.

Be in centrally located, welcoming buildings.  Dana says that museum buildings should be useful, not ornamental.  The temple-like neo-classical building, located in a remote city park, is no place for a museum.  Dana says that museums should be located in the same place as department stores:  where they will get a lot of traffic.

Dana would probably not care for the “vanity” architecture that is in vogue in many new museum buildings.  He expects museum buildings to be inviting and flexible spaces and thinks the majority of a museum’s budget should be in the staff, not in buildings and collections.

Be bold about advertising.  An idea that has been widely embraced by museums.  Dana understood that museums would get more support if people understood the value of the work our institutions perform.

So, how can museums be useful?  Dana has thoughts on that as well.

Invest in staff over collections.  The staff should be large (p. 68), well-paid (p. 103), and constantly learning.

Experiment.  “The museum that does things because it is quite sure that they are the only right things to do is quite harmful to museum development.  In a new and largely unexplored field, only the inquirer who is not only bold but is also fully conscious that the field is unexplored can give us useful data for mapping that which is as yet unknown” (p. 192).  Ninety-seven years after this was written, we still have much to learn about museum practice.

Get out into the community.  Dana believes that museums should operate like libraries and have large collections that can be lent to teachers, businesses, and individuals.

He also promotes the idea of branch museums.  These are complete teaching museums and as much as possible “fitted to the character of its neighborhood and to the degree of education and the occupation of its residents” (p. 91).

Why did I want to read this book as a bridge between my academic training and professional work?  Because I knew Dana’s ideas were important, and that I will come back to them again and again during the course of my career.

There is, of course, much that I have not been able to mention here.  I hope I have convinced you to read this book and let Dana’s ideas challenge and inspire you.

What do you think of Dana’s ideas?  Which of his ideas should museums use today?  Should museums of the 21st century reject any of his ideas?

Image credit: Wikipedia

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