Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2018
Kathleen Curran The Invention of the American Art Museum: From Craft to Kulturgeschichte, 1870–1930 Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2016. 256 pp.; 119 b/w ills. Hardcover $49.95 (9781606064788)

Despite the growth of museum-history scholarship in recent decades, there is still much to learn about museums’ origins and development. Kathleen Curran’s skillfully researched and richly illustrated book is a stimulating contribution to this field, especially regarding collections and display practices among the first generation of major American art museums as they matured. These include the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (both founded in 1870), what became the Philadelphia Museum of Art (whose origins date to 1876), and, to a lesser extent, museums further west, including the Art Institute of Chicago (1879), the Detroit Institute of Arts (founded as the Detroit Museum of Art in 1885), and the Cleveland Museum of Art (1913). Curran, professor of fine arts at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, concentrates on the earlier museums’ third and fourth decades, when nearly all were planning new buildings or additions and thus rethinking the contours and presentation of their collections.

Curran argues that these museums began with missions aimed at providing American audiences examples of the best in industrial or applied arts, mostly domestic goods—the “craft” of her subtitle—as a means of improving American life and commerce. She points to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in London as an influential model. This was in part because its collections, which originated with wares garnered from the first of the great world’s fairs, the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, afforded such a dazzling array for British citizens’ edification. Using the Boston and New York museums as prime examples, Curran examines why, as American museum directors and their patrons began pursuing finer objects, particularly paintings and statuary, they elected to exhibit these acquisitions in contextualized displays. She finds the Americans’ efforts were informed by the German concept of Kulturgeschichte (cultural history) and its innovative implementation in several German history museums. Those museums presented their collections in purpose-built settings that orchestrated exterior architecture and interior designs to be stylistically sympathetic with the objects on display. What were once exhibits of goods arranged in typological groupings based on function or shape (as a means of facilitating comparisons of materials, designs, and craftsmanship) were abandoned in favor of contextual presentations integrating different kinds of objects—period rooms, architectural remnants, furniture, and domestic wares—from the same eras and regions meant to immerse viewers in particular cultural moments.

Along the way Curran thoroughly explains the origins and articulation of Kulturgeschichte in German thought, its application in German history museums, and its subsequent adaptation for art museums, most notably by Wilhelm von Bode in Berlin. Curran’s research is based on archival as well as secondary sources, which taken together reveal the several avenues by which the Kulturgeschichte model was transmitted to the United States. In some instances this occurred via American museum officials’ travels to study European museums firsthand, those from Boston’s museum taking the lead. In other cases it was by Germans who trained with Bode, chief among whom was William (Wilhelm) Valentiner, who applied the Kulturgeschichte method first in New York and then in Detroit. By tracing the transmission of key ideas from Germany to the United States and then among American museums, Curran also illuminates the expanding network of museum workers and their patrons, the professionalization of museum work, and the interanimations of personal and institutional collecting that were reified in what became several of the institutions’ distinctive strengths. Her findings additionally enrich our understanding of why period rooms and architectural fragments became such prominent features of American museums during this period; and, too, why “one of the distinguishing characteristics of the American art museum is the marked presence of decorative arts” (202).

The framing of Curran’s proposition reflected in her book’s main title, The Invention of the American Art Museum, is rather misleading, however. The more accurate word would be reinvention. Although most American museum founders attempted to emulate European models, the initial outcomes admittedly fell short due to a variety of circumstances. The American museums all began as municipal (as opposed to national or regional) institutions; they were all established by voluntary associations of often very disparate individuals using their own resources (not monarchs or unified governments); they aspired to serve local (not national) civic purposes; and they all began with collections the founders understood were deficient—typically aggregations of plaster casts of statuary and architectural ornaments from classical antiquity to the early Renaissance, other kinds of reproductions, a potpourri of decorative wares, and a comparative handful of original paintings—because they were indiscriminately assembled and ordinary. As founders either acquired the wealth and access to purchase the types of high art we find in museums today or were joined by others with similar tastes and greater assets, they began crowding their museums and then longing to expand them into larger, more refined institutions. It is then that the building and display campaigns studied by Curran begin to occur—a few decades after the first generation of museums was established and the first buildings erected. Curran is persuasive in showing the impact of Kulturgeschichte on the designs of replacement buildings and new wings and as a consequence their outfitting with period rooms and architectural fragments from historic sites in Europe and the United States. But the aspirations that brought those changes about evolved in the context of cultural and socioeconomic shifts, some related to tastes and desires seeded earlier. This prehistory, undoubtedly beyond the scope of Curran’s book, someday deserves more scrutiny for what it might tell us about this tender moment when American art museums could have just as readily developed in other directions.

In pursuit of her argument Curran smooths over other complications as well. She characterizes the chronological arrangement of Alexandre Lenoir’s Musée des Monuments Français as pioneering and departing from “the norm” (16). While not common, displays of works by chronology (and school) had begun in Vienna and Düsseldorf some decades earlier and may well have informed the nearly contemporaneous installation of the Louvre, which largely followed the same pattern. Additionally, the appetite for Kulturgeschichte in the United States coincided with an equal hunger for original masterpieces. Its satisfaction resulted in a redirection of Americans’ energy from pedagogical utility to an emphasis on connoisseurship and “elevated” aesthetic experiences, affecting both the selection of artworks and their display. Paradoxically, coincident with the changes demonstrated by Curran—specifically the incorporation of period rooms and contextualized displays with all the historically orchestrated clutter they entailed—was a contrasting effort to facilitate aesthetic contemplation of individual masterworks by sweeping away peripheral distractions. Galleries crowded with dizzying salon-style, frame-to-frame, floor-to-ceiling displays were emptied out, and only the choicest paintings were culled to be reinstalled in far sparer settings, hung mostly at eye level, in single rows, and amply spaced from one another.

Emblematic of this drive to facilitate unimpeded aestheticism was the work of Benjamin Ives Gilman (at Boston’s museum), who Curran quotes as decrying the “educational museum” in favor of “artistic comprehension” (56). But he wasn’t advocating the kind of contextualized—that is, culturally enlightening—displays she suggests. To the contrary, the issue for Gilman ran much deeper than substituting Kulturgeschichte for typology. Rather, he prioritized the pure aesthetic encounter over any kind of interpretive framework, including history. A few years after he wrote the essay from which Curran quotes, Gilman observed: “Like technical knowledge, historical knowledge offers a crutch to observation. It may direct the eyes that need directing; and it may also direct them to no material advantage.” Notwithstanding Gilman’s demonstrable commitment to art museums’ educational service, he was at heart something of an elitist, who believed, as he wrote elsewhere, “the capacity to comprehend works of art is . . . a matter of native endowment” (Benjamin Ives Gilman, Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, 2nd ed. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923], 65, 97).

Curran’s text is accompanied by an effective scholarly apparatus, including chapter endnotes, many discursive, a thorough bibliography, and a useful subject index. The book is published in a ten- by eight-inch format that graciously accommodates the large number of well-selected and informative illustrations. As with other Getty publications, this one is beautifully designed, printed, and bound. Yet some of the textual mechanics falter. Occasionally, the reason for an image’s use isn’t obvious, and its caption does not point us to the features Curran has in mind. It would be advantageous to have the dates photographs were taken if they are significantly later than the dates their subjects were created. Most of all, because Curran frequently invites us to compare figures on one page with others situated dozens of pages away, it would have been helpful to have a figure list with page numbers. The text is burdened with unnecessary repetitions of quotes, phrases, and figure citations, sometimes within a couple of pages or even on the same page; and there is a scattering of grammatical infelicities and typos. Those familiar with individual museums’ stories may find other errors similar to those concerning the Detroit museum, with which I’m familiar (it was founded in 1885 not 1895, opened its first building in 1888 not 1889, and opened its courtyard in 1927—a year before Boston finally enclosed its).

No matter: the book is a valuable resource, and students of museum history owe Kathleen Curran a debt of thanks for this thoroughly researched and insightful contribution to historical and critical studies of museums.

Jeffrey Abt
Professor, James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University

Please send comments about this review to