Dioramas and Cabinets of Curiosities in Milwaukee and Montreal

Plaque at the entrance of the Frontier Airlines Convention Center from the Hilton Hotel Skywalk, April 21, 2012

What "Good History" Milwaukee has to offer was certainly augmented by the influx of hundreds of historians who attended the 2012 joint conference of the National Council on Public History and the Organization of American Historians this past weekend, April 18-22. I for one was quite intoxicated by the intellectual and social environment of the conference and the city that hosted it. I invite you to read more on the Public History Commons, and I may have more to say about specific sessions once I've had a chance to let my impressions synthesize, but for now, I'd like to share some comparative observations of the Milwaukee Public Museum and the little Redpath Museum in Montreal, visited within days of each other.

Diorama at the Milwaukee Public Museum, Photo by Drew Saunders
After a minor scheduling hitch that involved a rapid walk through a blustery Milwaukee afternoon, I made it to a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Milwaukee Public Museum, a large institution dedicated to comprehensive natural history and ethnographic coverage on a world-scale. From our enthusiastic guides, the museum's chief registrar and an exhibition curator in charge of the museum studies certificate program at U-W Milwaukee, I learned about the institution's signature "Milwaukee Style" dioramas, the intellectual offspring of Carl Akeley.  As a former New-Yorker, I had fallen into a common provincial trap, believing that the three-dimensional "still lifes" with taxidermy, natural fibers, and perspective backgrounds had originated at Manhattan's own "indoor zoo," the American Museum of Natural History. In fact, Carl Akeley first realized his artistic vision of a style of taxidermy where animals were placed in realistic positions, surrounded by their natural habitat, at the Milwaukee Public Museum.  He later went on to propagate the style at the Field Museum in Chicago and then at the American Museum of Natural History where he worked from 1909 until his death in 1926.

At the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley's style extends to the cultural displays that offer visitors an Epcot-style world tour from the Americas to Africa and Asia.  Even Europe is represented, albeit in a more modern context beside an exhibit meant to transport visitors back in time to "The Streets of Old Milwaukee."  Although I was impressed by the attention to detail, color, and loving maintenance in all of the Museum's exhibits, I couldn't help but feel slightly uneasy amidst the juxtapositions of disparate times and places. Crafted like stage-sets, the museum's exhibits have a kind of spacial narrative without explicit transitions. As a part of the special behind-the-scenes tour, I had the opportunity to learn about the components of the exhibits built in the late 19th century, augmented by the WPA in the 1930s and then installed in the museum's permanent home in the 1960s.  However, none of these chronological mash-ups are illuminated in the museum's exhibit captions.  I know I'm not alone in my desire for this kind of meta-text, especially in narrative museum exhibits (a kind of historiography), but this is rarely granted to the visitor, even in contemporary credit panels which more frequently credit donors than curators.

Photo on http://www.mcgill.ca/redpath/about
I find that I am less bothered by a lack of  chronological grounding in the non-linear, more old fashioned "cabinet of curiosities" style of exhibitry. At the Public Museum, this style is proudly showcased in the Sense of Wonder exhibit on the Museum's first floor. As I discussed in a previous post, the Redpath Museum on the campus of McGill University, also showcases the turn-of-the-20th-century style of exhibitry throughout its gorgeous 1882 building. Interestingly, both the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Redpath resist alteration due to strong architectural imperatives.  I am left pondering the value of versatility and flexibility in a museum. Does a museum that is frozen within its own historical context become an artifact on display? Should institutions embrace this state of affairs when faced with physical plants resistant to change?  Does the virtual world then become the best avenue for expansion and contemporary curation for institutions such as these? If an old exhibition is truly a gem, then this doesn't seem like too bad a turn of affairs.