From 17th-century curiosity cabinets to Night at the Museum, artifacts and specimens have offered their collectors, curators, and viewers access to multiple ways of understanding the past and the present. In this writing seminar we’ll explore the practices of collection and display in a range of times and places, including our own. Through materials in history, anthropology, and museum studies, we’ll grapple with key questions about American culture: What do we collect and why? What are museums for? What do our displays reveal about who we are? We’ll consider dinosaur bones and taxidermy, stolen treasure and world’s fairs, even artifacts from Cornell’s myriad collections as we examine the ways exhibits tell stories and offer arguments — and craft our own in the essays we write.

“No other children in all the world since the world began had had such an opportunity. So she set forth for herself and for her brother the task of learning everything about the museum. One thing at a time” (47). This is how Claudia and Jamie, the protagonists of E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, first approach their experience as runaways hiding out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But their approach is also helpful for us as we begin a semester-long exploration of the history of natural history museums, collecting, and display, especially because of the aside Konigsburg’s narrator offers next: “Claudia probably didn’t realize that the museum has 365,000 works of art. Even if she had, she could not have been convinced that learning everything about everything was not possible; her ambitions were as enormous and as multi-directional as the museum itself” (47). Our ambitions this spring will also be multi-directional (and perhaps enormous): we’ll consider specimens and field books, collectors and their displays, dioramas, dinosaur bones, even a whole mastodon (and the museum it’s in). We’ll ask questions about the production of scientific knowledge, about the arguments display cases and museums make, and try our hands (and brains!) at organizing exhibits—and essays—of our own. We’ll pull back the curtain just as the figure of Charles Willson Peale does in The Artist in His Museum (1822) and examine what the history of natural history museums can reveal about American culture and identity in the past and the present. Together we’ll explore the research and writing process—the work historians do—as a kind of curation, of collection and display.

HIS 1173: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: The Museum in American History Spring 2014 syllabus here.


“Musei Wormiani Historia,” the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum (1655), Wikimedia Commons.