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Making Museums Accessible.

MAKING MUSEUMS ACCESSIBLE Laurence Vail Coleman, Museums in America: A Critical Study, Volumes 1-3, American Association of Museums, Washington, 1939.

Laurence Vail Coleman was one of the most significant figures in museum studies during the first half of the twentieth century. As first the Executive Secretary and then President of the American Museums Association in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Coleman was one of the most influential writers on museum matters during that time.

After publishing his A Manual for Small Museums in 1927, (1) Coleman embarked upon his most ambitious project--a survey of museums and the museum profession in America. This project was partly funded by the American Museums Association and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and was the first comprehensive survey of museums ever undertaken in America. In order to complete the project Coleman visited more than 2,000 museums of all types and sizes across America.

In contrast to other works written around the same time by authors such as T.R. Adam (2) and G.F. Ramsey, (3) Coleman's three volumes move away from a narrow focus on one subject, such as civic improvement, or one aspect of museum operations, such as education. Instead Coleman set out to cover all aspects of museum operations including staffing, display methods, administration, education, public funding and philanthropy. The only other work of a similar type was Benjamin Gilman's single volume published twenty-one years earlier in 1918. (4)

What distinguishes Coleman's volumes from Gilman's single book is the approach taken in discussing the museum profession. Gilman focused purely on art museums whereas Coleman looks at all sizes and types of museums, from large to small and from science museums to historic houses. It is less of a manual for operating a museum, unlike Gilman's book or Coleman's own 1927 manual. Rather, it is a commentary on the condition, weaknesses, limitations and opportunities of museums in the 1930s, and the prospects for the future of the museum profession. Coleman provides a baseline summary of the entire museum profession in high quality basic research which, for the first time, allowed Americans and others to see the profession as a whole and not as a multitude of isolated parts.

Unlike museums in other parts of the world, such as the Colonies and Dominions of the British Empire, there was no great museum survey period like the 1930s funded by a philanthropic organisation. Museums in America were not surveyed in a systematic way until Coleman did so in 1939. The volumes were seen as so important that, when they were published in 1939, the President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Dr F. P. Keppel, wrote to many museums around the world (including Australia), promoting the books as the best work on museums yet written. On behalf of the Corporation, Dr. Keppel personally contacted all of the major Australian museums, offering copies of these books at no cost so that each museum would be able to have copies of such an important work on their library shelves.

As far as my own doctoral research is concerned, Coleman's three 1939 volumes have served two functions. Firstly, they have been a valuable source of comparative literature and information about American museums and how they differed from Australian museums in the 1930s. Secondly, the individual volumes are excellent examples of how a book covering a specialist subject can in fact be written in such a way as to be intelligible and useful to the nonspecialist.

Coleman states that the book covers what he thinks about what everybody knows. There is more to this simple statement than at first appears. One could say that he is merely writing down what everyone else knows about museum operations, but instead it seems that Coleman is questioning museum workers by asking, 'What do you really know about the profession?', 'How do you know it?' and 'Are you sure that what you know is true?' I think Coleman was also having a go at the museum profession for the fact that, despite the presence of a professional association for more than 20 years, it had failed to provide a coherent body of knowledge about museum operations and theory.

Recent times have seen the increasing use of post-modernist views of museums and the widespread application by historians of 'literary or critical theory' to 'deconstruct' museums, the people who work in them and the messages they put forward.

Although writing before the post-modernist trend, Coleman clearly shows that these theories and their associated philosophical concepts are not necessary to the production of a clear and accessible appraisal of museums and the museum profession.

These volumes are inspiring examples of how analysis of an area such as the museum profession can be conducted and described in a way which critically examines the development of museums while avoiding the trap of becoming mired in philosophical or political theory.

(1) Laurence Vail Coleman, A Manual For Small Museums, Putnam and Sons, New York, 1927.

(2) Thomas R. Adam, 'The Civic Value of Museums', American Association for Adult Education, New York, 1937.

(3) Grace Fisher-Ramsey, Educational Work in Museums of the United States: Developments, Methods and Trends, H.W. Wilson, New York, 1937.

(4) Benjamin I. Gilman, Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass., 1918.


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Title Annotation:Museums in America: A Critical Study, Volumes 1-3
Author:Monz, Derek
Publication:Traffic (Parkville)
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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