Rader on Ceglio, 'A Cultural Arsenal for Democracy: The World War II Work of U.S. Museums'

Clarissa J. Ceglio. A Cultural Arsenal for Democracy: The World War II Work of U.S. Museums. Public History in Historical Perspective Series. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2022. Illustrations. 240 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-625-4; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-624-7.

Reviewed by Karen Rader (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (April, 2023)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57626

In history, as in science, it pays to examine unsuccessful experiments: they are (paraphrasing Columbia neuroscientist Stuart Firestein) good tests of dedication and rough indicators of dependable “passions” and commitments in knowledge making.[1] Clarissa J. Ceglio’s latest book focuses on what might appear from today’s perspectives to be an institutional change already accomplished in the modern museum world: US museums’ increasing embrace of civic activism. Ceglio historiographically reframes that achievement as originating in immediate prewar and postwar failures—namely, the inability of these same organizations to resolve the paradox of what Theodore Low in 1942 deemed “the museum as a social instrument” (in his book The Museum as a Social Instrument).

To make her argument, Ceglio mines well-worn archival records from eight primary museums—The Newark Museum (NJ), the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, NY), the Wadsworth Atheneum (CT), the Smithsonian Institution (DC), the Brooklyn Museum (NY), the Art Institute of Chicago (IL), and the American Museum of Natural History (NY)—as well as analyzes reports and correspondence, much of which was generated through the philanthropic efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation to modernize museum displays beginning in the 1930s. She argues that our current debate over whether museums should take active political stances or remain neutral in the face of social challenges or disruptions has a misunderstood history, with deeper roots both in specific Progressive and New Deal political visions and in the general rise of a new museum display craft of “selected wartime exhibitions as materializations of culturally predominant imagined communities” (p. 9).

Chapter 1 offers a brief prehistory and a conceptual frame for the narrower case studies that follow. Ceglio defines what constituted “display craft reflective of the social instrument paradigm” in the early twentieth century as a new exhibit-centered epistemology: she suggests that ideas and beliefs about how objects possessed and communicated knowledge to laypersons were reconceived in the period between 1895 and 1930, newly favoring thematic storytelling, didactic aims, and dynamic meaning making through text, sound, and interactivity (p. 17). Funders cast these changes under the umbrella of what they called “modernization” but what Ceglio argues was actually a new object-centered “material rhetoric” (p. 20). The Rockefeller Foundation’s policies, for instance, treated museums as another kind of mass medium to be studied and controlled through research analogous to (and often embedded in) other commercial enterprises like department stores. Ceglio makes important connections in this discussion between efforts to make museums more accessible and the rise of professionalization in both museum work and adult education. Studies done by well-known museum practitioners like Edward Alexander and Carlos E. Cummings analyzed the museum’s “communicative turn” in ways that gave displays agency in commanding visitor attention. At the same time, new display architects—some of whom originally worked in adult education, like Thomas Richie Adam and Philip N. Yountz—asserted that the new relevance of embodied learning about the contemporary world in museums amounted to civic education for democracy. Collectively, such efforts introduced new questions about “where truth lay—in the object, in the research and ideas the museum wanted to display, in the panoply of individual beholders,... or somewhere in between them all”—and these, in Ceglio’s assessment, challenge the “too easy dismissal of all civic engagement as only so much propaganda or arising solely out of wartime conditions” (pp. 30, 36).

Chapter 2 focuses on the national call for hemispheric unity—via the federal government’s embrace of the “Good Neighbor” policy in the 1930s—which Ceglio suggests (somewhat paradoxically) built on museums’ earlier Pan-American colonialist and extractive collection and research policies to “constitute museums’ primary contribution to cultural diplomacy in the 1930s and 1940s” (p. 41). Seeking to establish public competency by focusing exhibitions on topics of public concern, for example, Newark Museum director Beatrice Wisner partnered with the US Department of State’s undersecretary, Sumner Welles, to obtain funding for a two-part display, Three Southern Neighbors: Equators, Peru, and Bolivia (1941-42). In Welles’s vision, tropes of consumption reigned supreme: hemispheric unity was to be achieved through “direct encounters between US citizens and the cultural products, if not the people, of other nations.” And, in turn, the exhibit opening was followed by a three-week Latin American Fair at Macy’s Department Store (at which a letter written by Hernán Cortés in 1524 was on offer!). But Ceglio carefully centers not just this one exhibit but also an array of government-museum partnerships as driving the formation of a larger wartime “exhibitionary network” and skillfully traces out the many people, places, and organizations responsible for its development across an array of institutions (p. 40). She further sounds a note of caution regarding museums’ prewar embrace of persuasive displays: “such bald enthusiasm for propaganda is a reminder that the term held a broader meaning then than now” (p. 62). Finally, she notes that her analysis confirms that US White racial attitudes combined with “ignorance of ethnic, racial, and class dynamics in the varied [Latin American] republics, as well as focus on indigeneity and difference, proved frustrating” for international museological partnerships (p. 65).

Chapter 3 traces museums’ renewed debates about their institutional worth once world war came again. Ceglio demonstrates how they become more civically engaged around a “primary tension within the field: sorting out, whether, under war conditions, social instrumentality through exhibition craft would set museums more firmly on the path to civic relevance or steer them away from the truth of things” (p. 78). This chapter captures well the polarization that the social value debate engendered among museum professionals across disciplinary lines. Some recommended (and engaged in) even deeper and more direct collaborations with the US government, relying on earlier commercial and popular communication techniques to push a newly urgent educational message about wartime technology and science (as with the American Museum of Natural History’s efforts, under Albert E. Parr, to serve wartime agendas through providing relevant research and specimen displays). Others cautioned against (and withdrew from) heightened wartime work, doubling down on what they saw as their institution’s core museological commitment to objectivity (as the National Park Service’s head of museum division Ned Burns laid this line in the sand, telling his colleagues: “the dry and technical facts of history and science can be given a truthful presentation without the loss of their inherent dramatic possibilities” [p. 81]).

Chapter 4 describes how, once war finally arrived, US museums constructed and reinforced home-front citizenship as their social mission by serving “as spaces within which belonging to the national family could be both performed and witnessed” (p. 93). This chapter is wide ranging in its case studies, covering home-front exhibits ranging from the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry to New York’s MoMA, and it is also the most visually rich chapter in the book, featuring many display pictures, although many photos are reproduced too small to see relevant details. Ceglio suggests that MoMA’s Wartime Housing exhibit, which ran from April to June 1942, offered “racialized readings” of the topic that shaped “notions of home front belonging and visions of postwar America” but admits that the archival record with regard to museum exhibit display, circulation, and reception does less to enable understanding of policies than simple historical juxtapositions: while MoMA leaders debated inviting prominent New York Black community leaders to attend the opening, US Executive Order 9102 enacted a very different sort of home-front communal living for Japanese Americans in US-based internment camps (p. 121).

Chapter 5 provides a brief overview of museums’ involvement in postwar peacemaking, showing how these institutions transformed themselves into “gateways to new cosmopolitan citizenship” (p. 14). American Association of Museum (AAM) leaders and museum directors transitioned into global roles in the new Museums Division of the United Nations (under their umbrella mission of supporting Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizations [UNESCO]), and the International Council on Museums (ICOM) was founded. Still, Ceglio argues that this historical moment, when museums were on the verge of a victory lap toward their goal of social usefulness, ultimately became their undoing—precisely because, for all their talk of modernization, museums had not abandoned the tools of imperialism and White supremacy. Object-based epistemology, for instance, often functioned to reinscribe hierarchical colonial typologies into new displays, and political unwillingness (during the rise of Cold War nationalism and the "Red Scare") to use the shared humanity of internationalism to push for racial equity in the United States undermined museums’ more ambitious reform efforts.

Finally, in chapter 6 Ceglio reconnects her historical account of wartime museum practices to more recent historiographical and museum studies debates. Here, despite my appreciation for the author’s narrative and archival achievements, I found this excellent book frustrating. By tracing important arising tensions—including those over objectivity versus neutrality, civic relevance, and meaning making through objects—over a longer-ranging expanse of historical time, Ceglio asks us to question traditional historical periodizations and simple understandings of success versus failure in museum practice and instead to think about how institutional change really works, for better or worse (usually some combination), across historical time. She acknowledges both the possibilities and the limits of socially instrumental museum work and ultimately demonstrates (persuasively to this historian of science) that “histories of lasting transformation are not the only ones we need” (p. 3). Whatever seems institutionally and epistemologically solid in the present inevitably had a contingent moment of existence and justification in the past, and even elements that did not seem contingent to some historical actors in Ceglio’s museum stories (like the majority White racist and classist attitudes frequently on display) we can see (without presentism, through Ceglio’s skillful juxtapositions of important consistent debates) as challengeable. But by not more fully developing or acknowledging historiographical connections to areas that Ceglio herself deems important to institutional change—for instance, the history of education (especially adult and museum education) and history of science and technology (especially the role played by history, science, and natural history museums in debates over objectivity)—the author misses an opportunity to connect her story to other overlapping stories, and in turn, tell a more complex story about museums’ unique place in US society.

Ultimately, Ceglio’s account is a must-read for US museum studies practitioners and scholars—including historians, designers, directors, and educators—because it, too, offers us a vital prehistory to Duncan Cameron’s infamous 1971 declaration in Curator: “our museums are desperately in need of psychotherapy.... Our institutions are unable to resolve their problems of role definition.”[2] That these debates continue today, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, suggests that they are a feature, not a bug, of ongoing museum experiments.


[1]. Stuart Firestein, Failure: Why Science Is So Successful (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 68.

[2]. Duncan Cameron, “The Museum, A Temple or the Forum,” Curator 14, no. 1 (March 1971): 11.

Citation: Karen Rader. Review of Ceglio, Clarissa J., A Cultural Arsenal for Democracy: The World War II Work of U.S. Museums. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. April, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57626

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