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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 20, No. 3
September, 1942
WARTIME DUTIES OF HISTORICAL SOCIETY MUSEUMS

By L. Hubbard Shattuck1

Page 257

As we gather here this afternoon in historic old Williamsburg, I have a feeling of reverence not unlike that of the spiritual devotee who travels weary miles, from a distant clime, to visit the shrine of his devotion.

Here is revealed our America of the past—her arts and crafts—her culture and her character—all held in the amber of antiquity as perfect specimens of a departed age. From these living pages of our history we take new inspiration and vision. We renew our faith in America and her ultimate destiny in a war torn world. The toil and sacrifices, the joys and sorrows, which have filled the pages of our national history from the days of the original Williamsburg to the present time, are ample assurance that this republic can and will be sustained through the present crisis.

To bring before our people in a vital and convincing manner the virtues as well as the failures of the past is the important task which confronts our historical museums today. Some may argue, and rightly so, "Has this not always been our work?" This is true, but we have not always succeeded and never has the need been more urgent than at the present.

Historical museums have a rightful place in the scheme of our national life. We are important and necessary to the common cause of winning the war. It is my purpose this afternoon to discuss with you some of the conditions which reveal our worth, as well as those that could lead to our ultimate elimination, if not realistically and honestly faced.

This environment and the marvels of these splendid restorations are convincing proof that America of today cherishes the cultural values of her past. This is a sign of great hope and promise, for any nation becoming indifferent to her cultural resources has begun her spiritual and moral decadence. The art, sciences, literature, music and history of any nation are but the reflection of the soul of her people. These resources must be true ones, however, and not based upon the too often unsound emotional reactions of impractical theorists and alien doctrines. Those cultural values which have withstood the test of time; that have helped men and women triumph over the problems of their day and age—those only are worthy of preservation for the guidance of people of today and of our citizens of tomorrow. The care and evaluation of these cultural resources are major problems confronting those responsible for the policies and the adminis-



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tration of our historical museums, for, with the decline of these, we note the downward arc of national greatness.

What part shall our historical museums play during the war? If they are to survive they must justify their existence as a vital element of community and national life. Our danger comes not alone from enemy military force, but also through propaganda directed towards our civilian disintegration. It is against these negative forces of internal disruption that historical museums must strike a most effective blow, and thus assist in the work of uniting our people in the common national cause. In their own communities, historical museums should become the shrines of true Americanism, where particularly the youth of the land may receive their inspiration, as we receive ours amid these historical surroundings.

You are doubtless familiar with the recent writings of Elliot Paul, concerning the decline in the national consciousness of the French people during the past two decades. A brief comparison of the years preceding World War I and those leading up to the present conflict is both interesting and significant from the standpoint of cultural values. Prior to 1914, the Third Republic had been moving progressively in art, sciences and literature. In some respects, French culture had reached its apogee during these years and with this, it achieved, also, its greatest commercial success. A Mecca for artists, France was also the home of many outstanding intellectuals. From the days of Marie Antoinette through the period dominated by Charles Frederick Worth and Paul Poiret, leadership in the fashions of the world remained with France. Her culinary arts, like her paintings and music, were cherished by the monarchy and later by the Republic. After the first World War, however, these arts were permitted to decline and stagnate. Thus the ground was prepared for the infiltration of foreign doctrine, for the first requisite for successful national disintegration is that the people of any country upon whom the fifth columnist works should have ceased to believe in their national ideals. They must have lost all faith in the validity and the workability of their government. Let us not fail to profit by this lesson. Let us build our national bulwarks against such possibilities.

Our historical museums are, figuratively speaking, the arsenals wherein are held the sword and armor for the preservation of our historic recollections. In the words of Edward Everett, "How is the spirit of a free people to be formed and animated and cheered but out of the storehouse of its historical recollections!" Now is the appropriate time for our historical institutions to fulfill their mission to their communities as well as the nation at large so that all may appreciate more fully the rich heritage of our country and envision clearly those fundamentals which are responsible for the building of this nation.

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Compared with England and other parts of Europe, our history is young in years, but through this relatively short period of human endeavor, our people have run the gamut of sacrifice and hardship, always forward, regardless of the dark days of struggle.

The brilliant triumph over obstacles which have beset the American nation in its economic, military and social welfare is reflected in the priceless objects and documentary material given to the museums of this country for the encouragement and education of the people of today and those who will use them in the future.

With every crisis, there comes a spiritual awakening, and also an intellectual advancement. Men and women, who in the past have overlooked these cultural advantages, in the hour of stress and strain now turn to them for inspiration and hope. A few hours spent with objects associated with the past refreshes the minds of those engaged in arduous war duties. Such an association revitalizes the mind and spirit and inspires one to higher accomplishments at this critical time.

Too often the public has felt that material in historical museums has little dramatic or living value. Unfortunately, there is justification for the criticism. Our exhibits are frequently too static to satisfy the demands of a people impressed with the necessity of accomplishment. Too often the public passes over with indifference exhibits which to the trained mind possess a rare and historical value. Too often priceless relics are exhibited as curios with no suggestion as to their dramatic backgrounds. Grandmother's shawl may be highly valuable and interesting to relatives and friends but to the public at large, it has no meaning whatever unless it is so exhibited as to tell a vital story of human interest. Objects, like human beings who have not made a definite contribution to the scheme of human advancement, are soon forgotten, and have no value to the present or to the future. Discrimination in selecting and exhibiting material which has a definite purpose must be emphasized more strongly today than ever in the past. Sometimes against our better judgment we must, for policy's sake, accept those things which have little interest or value either now or hereafter. While this problem will tax our ingenuity, nevertheless, some point of interest must be developed to satisfy both the visitor and donor.

It is our responsibility to educate donors as well as visitors. We must help them to realize that this is a discriminating age and that the youth, who in the final analysis, are our most important visitors, are not easily impressed by some objects just because they have been associated with pleasing but unimportant persons or events.

Young people of today are no longer to be told fairy stories or given some bit of pleasant mustiness. Youth is critical, sus-

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picious, doubtful, but also utilitarian, and any object must prove its relation to the whole picture or it makes no impression whatsoever.

If we can express purpose in whatever we exhibit, our youth will quickly recognize this, and it will leave a mark upon the impressionable mind. They will be inspired to achieve as great, or greater things than have been produced or accomplished in the past.

In brief, service is the keynote of this age; it must be emphasized not only in individuals but in collections. In what manner our collections can serve the public should be the query uppermost in the minds of museum directors and their accessions committees.

Our institutions are not merely guardians of the past, but are factors in the building and molding of character for the future. Now is our great opportunity to go forward at an increased pace from the standpoint of education and public service. By taking this opportunity which is offered, museums can assist in the broad national objectives of winning the war and winning the peace.

There are innumerable opportunities for timely and instructive exhibits. The Chicago Historical Society has recently completed a National Defense Exhibit displaying firearms and other equipment used in the various wars of our country since colonial days. We are helping to publicize the activities and work of the American Red Cross in special exhibitions presented in cooperation with our local chapter. We will assist the Civilian Defense program by stressing the duties and functions of civilian defense workers and their responsibilities to the community, through pertinent and timely exhibits.

Costumes worn by women during the times when the United States was engaged in war reveal the change in modes brought about by the various crises in our national history. Each war cycle produces its distinct effect on community life and the costumes of the people present an interesting study in war psychology. Great interest has been shown in a proposed exhibit of World War I military maps, showing plans of attack and other pertinent data. Our library has also found that the army can use for reference, documentary maps and material concerning previous military campaigns.

Special exhibits and programs designed to interest and appeal to our men in the armed services are worthy of much careful thought and study. These men want to see and learn what America has experienced in the past and what is to be expected from her in the future.

Observance of military days and events, under museum sponsorship, is most timely. A matter of prime importance which must be considered is the collection of present war material. Dur-

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ing and after the last war, many historical museums and libraries followed this policy. Shrines of patriotic value have been built around these collections. I am convinced that the ceremonies and exhibits commemorating the sacrifices of a quarter of a century ago have made a direct contribution to the courage, fortitude and patriotism of the men in service today.

Motion pictures, lantern slides and traveling exhibits, dealing with military and defense activities, are instrumental in bringing the public to the building as well as presenting the story of our exhibits to school children and adults not yet familiar with the museums.

Such exhibits and activities contribute towards the positive and constructive side of our war work. On the other side, however, there are signs of disturbing significance at the present moment.

Whenever there is a definite decline in attendance, it is a warning signal that we are not holding the interest of our public. In a recent survey conducted by the Cultural Resources Committee of Illinois, we find, with few exceptions, a steady decrease in attendance for the first three months of 1942, as against the same period in the previous two years. More recent data secured from Chicago museums indicates a decrease of between 20% to 30% for the first four months of 1942 as compared to 1941. This has been particularly noticeable within these last few months when transportation facilities have been curtailed in many sections.

While it is true that many of our citizens are engaged in various branches of war service and cannot take advantage of the opportunities offered by our museums, there are many others who have not yet been made sufficiently conscious of the educational and recreational opportunities which museums have to offer. It is largely in this field that we must look for new interest, as well as financial support.

A casual examination will show that even in war times there is much activity of a recreational nature on the part of our citizens. The race tracks are filled with devotees of that sport; golf links are still operating and amusement places as well as recreational spots are well patronized. Why, then, should we not be able to generate greater interest in museums, so as to draw from the large class of people seeking mental and emotional outlets for their time, thus giving them constructive as well as entertaining relaxation.

During the years preceding the present war, we noted a steady rise in museum attendance throughout the country. The present decline may only be temporary, but at least it is a warning signal which should not be overlooked. It presents a problem to be given careful study in order to offset this trend. The problem is not confined to any one type of institution. Definite and concerted action, only, will improve this condition.

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Our responsibility is to educate—amusement is incidental. True, there should be enjoyment derived from visiting our museums. This is often the lodestone that draws many of our visitors, and showmanship is as necessary as scholarship if we are to appeal to that public which has so many interests. If we fail to attract visitors, it is largely due, in my opinion, to the lack of promotional planning and to poor showmanship. Thus we miss the opportunity to serve both child and adult.

For the moment, museums have certain priority ratings, but this may soon be curtailed, or eliminated, further classifying us as non-essential to the war program. Such restrictions will seriously handicap, if not eliminate, work which must be carried on if we are to maintain our place in the national effort.

In England, at the beginning of the war, museums were closed. It was soon discovered, however, that museums were essential for the mental, moral and spiritual needs of the people. The English people in this way were given the strengthening elements necessary to build and maintain their morale. Man cannot live by bread alone, but must find sustenance also in those higher things of life. Particularly is this true in war times.

Here again is a problem which our American museums cannot ignore. Unless local and national authorities are convinced of our present and potential value, they naturally will overlook us in the confusion and rush of greater problems. We wish nothing which could in any manner hamper the progress of national victory, but we can, if given the opportunity, render positive and definite service in this world crisis. Let us define clearly to authoritative agencies those services which we are prepared to give at this time when our government needs the help of every organization and individual.

A united effort will give strength and vitality to all. Active cooperation with various branches of our national and local governments, chambers of commerce and other like groups is essential in calling attention to our patriotic as well as educational usefulness, thus increasing public attendance and consideration. In a large measure, we perform auxiliary educational work, not only among elementary and high school students, but also with colleges and universities.

I suggest at this time that the American Association of Museums study without delay, ways and means of clarifying our position as centers of learning rather than of amusement.

We now come to a question which is uppermost in the minds of every museum executive, the problem of finance. With our changing economic and social life, we are faced with the definite necessity of broadening the basis of public support. We cannot hope to expect from our more affluent patrons that generous support in the future which they have given in the past. They will not be in a position to contribute as in other years. More

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and more, museums must look to tax monies, foundation aid and to the general public for support.

In order to assure ourselves of this increased public revenue, we must sell ourselves more ingeniously to our citizens that they may regard us with increased favor and enthusiasm. Thus they will be willing to render help through membership and donations. These problems will demand the best thought and creative ideas of not only our directors and staff, but of the governing boards and present membership as well. Annual benefits of various kinds designed to increase revenue for operating needs should be considered. This method has worked successfully in supporting hospitals, welfare organizations and other civic institutions. Such programs should prove beneficial not only from the monetary standpoint but also in actively interesting many new groups of citizens who in the past have not been museum conscious.

It has been often said and I believe rightly so, that this is the beginning of a new age—new values—new ideas and a new outlook on life. We must be prepared to accept these changes in the spirit of true pioneers. We must interpret our museums in the light of this changing world. By uniting our strength, intelligence and courage, we can face this new future unafraid, preparing ourselves for that new day of enlightenment which must surely follow this darkness of a world at war.

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