By Sandra Lynch

What is a Museum?  "Museums are about cannibals and glass boxes," writes University of British Columbia Museum Director Michael Ames.  For many, a place with "glass boxes" and "cannibal tours" might sound like an enticing place to go.  Ames, however, was not writing a side-bar for British Columbia's Office of Tourism.  "Museums," Ames claims, "are cannibalistic in appropriating other peoples' material for their own study and interpretation, and they confine their representations to glass box display cases."  We expect there should be more to a museum, but when the institution first came into the world, glass boxes were the drawing cards.


The "glass box museum" evolved during Europe's Renaissance when Italian scholars and European travelers came to discover, describe and admire the glories of Greece and Egypt.  In 1732, England, the Society of Dilettanti was founded by learned men--men who had done the Grand Tour.  They were "...gentlemen who had traveled in Italy, desirous of encouraging, at home, a taste for those objects which had contributed so much to their entertainment abroad," wrote Richard Chandler in his Ionian Antiquities.  So it was, the museum was born from the souvenirs of comparative and competitive gathering.  By the mid-eighteenth century, collections became art histories by way of drawing the best, the prettiest, the most unusual objects of human behavior. 

Napoleon Bonaparte amassed a great expeditionary force to Egypt and looted the tombs of ancient kings.  Monuments were disassembled, brick by brick, and pieced back inside French palaces.  Napoleon gave the world the French Egyptian Institute, but it was no torch to archaeology.  It was rather, a vehicle to collect portable antiquities.  One of the Institution's prizes was the Rosetta Stone.  It was discovered in 1799 by a French soldier digging, by chance, near his fort at Alexandria. 

In 1802, the British took Egypt and the French collections, including the Rosetta Stone.  These spoils of war, and more, were delivered to the British Museum.  By 1802, the British had attached themselves to a history of what the First Master of Westminster School called "the back-looking curiosity."  Museums, for all their worth, were neither places of worship, nor homes for science. They were in many ways, treasuries of conquest.

Museums, as places of science, evolved in Denmark with Ole Worm (Olaus Womius), a refugee from Holland's religious wars.  Although trained as a medical doctor, his passion was for Greek classics. Worm had collected an enormous number of objects--plants, animals and human artifacts.  He rigorously recorded everything into categories he had invented: "fructus," "metalia," "animalium partes."  After Worm's death, Denmark's King Frederik III housed the Worm Collection in a building opposite his castle.  The opening of the Kunstkammer drew a great number of Danes eager to shed a few coins to see and muse over a bizarre assortment of exotic objects, antiquities and stuffed animals. 

Worm's categories did not answer the driving questions many asked who came and contemplated.  In 1806, Danish Professor Rasmus Nyerup recommended the country form a National Danish Museum of Antiquities.  The Danish government did so, placing Nyerup at the helm.  But Nyerup was plagued by what the collections might really mean.  Which object was older?  How did these bits of stone, pieces of human effort, evolve into the meaning of man?  Nyerup confessed, "..everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog: it belongs to a space of time which we cannot measure." 

Two more Danes dispelled that fog.  The son of a Copenhagen merchant, Christian Thomsen classified materials into three groups based on the material from which the objects were fashioned. Inside the Danish National Museum, Thomsen created separate rooms for his groupings.  He named them: "Stone Age," "the Age of Brass," and "the Age of Iron."  Thomsen's aid was a young law student, Jens Worsaae--a bright lad who loved to dig. Worsaae took Thomsen's rooms outside the museum's confines and into the world where he tested their validity against ancient monuments and excavations.  Thus, museum work became scientific inquiry. 

Meanwhile, across a great sea, a fledgling country was taking form. It too had a collection of curiosities and even better--living curiosities.  In 1799, a bright Thomas Jefferson worried over strange mounds--giant earthworks--that had been constructed with great care.  "They were repositories of the dead, has been obvious to all, but on what particular occasion constructed?" Jefferson pondered. As President of Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society he circulated a flyer urging fellow philosophers to "obtain accurate plans, drawings and descriptions..."  But Jefferson, unlike most of his European counterparts, did not urge digging for treasure--he sought answers to questions. 

Yet for all the Jeffersonian valor in "solving problems" of history, America's first museums collected according to kind and oddness.  "Art," claimed Paul DiMaggio, "was interspersed among such curiosities as bearded women and mutant animals."  Museums designed huge public spectacles, while within a smaller space, science toiled to present order and systematic description. Expeditionary quests began to fill exhibit halls with as much stuff as could be had--and that stuff was, of course, the artifacts of America's most exotic peoples--Native Americans. 

In 1905, the director of New York's American Museum of Natural History, Hermon Bumpus, explained: "...field expeditions of the Museum must not be carried on for scientific purposes, but only to fill gaps in the exhibition...if accidental scientific results can be had, they are acceptable, but...they must not be the object of field-work."  The American Museum became a monument to the country's Manifest Destiny--another trophy room exactly like the British Museum. 

One of the first pariahs to challenge the practice of artifact for artifact sake was Franz Boas.  He was concerned with the past within Indian peoples, not the quest for the oldest or most authentic object.  Boas worked along the Northwest Coast at a time where between 1875, and 1929, according to Douglas Cole, "there was more Kwakiutl material in Milwaukee than in Mamalillikulla."  Thanks to Boas' careful recordings of ceremonies, myths, languages and arts, today's Northwest Coast peoples have been able to revive aspects of their own cultures.  Boas gave glass boxes a sense of life amid the clutter of moccasins, pots, totems and stones. 

Today's good museums tell stories, continuous stories, that integrate real people with real tools, real skills and good ideas.  What is illuminated inside the glass box is human history, not contested prizes in a game of "How weird!" "How precious!" "How removed from us!"  After an inspiring trip to Wyoming's Buffalo Bill Historical Center, anthropologist Jane Tompkins was moved to write: "A museum...caters to the urge to absorb the life of another into one's own life... Museums are a form of cannibalism made safe for polite society." 

Sandra Lynch is Curator of Anthropology at Sharlot Hall Museum.

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (SHM photo). Reuse only by permission.
Every museum, including Sharlot Hall Museum, possesses collections, such as these "Arrowheads in Glass Boxes," that were meticulously gathered by well-meaning collectors.  Arrangements inside boxes became an art form onto itself presenting artifact for artifact's sake.  Today's museums use artifacts to enhance stories about people and history.