Monday, July 29, 2013

A New Deal for Museums

(Click images to enlarge)

When the Great Depression hit America, many museums struggled financially. Fortunately, the New Deal was there to help. 

(WPA poster advertising a museum exhibit, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

“WPA workers assisted museums in the making of dioramas, models, maps, lantern slides, and other visual-aid devices for extension work in public schools. These workers also assisted museums in the rearrangement and modernization of exhibits, and in the creation of accurate miniature representation of scenes illustrating (for example) the use of garments, dwellings and implements by aborigines or prehistoric peoples. WPA clerical workers assisted in the classifying and indexing of art, archaeological, and historical materials” (Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, 1946).

(A WPA-created exhibit of Civil War weapons, created for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, 1937. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)  

“…the implementation of New Deal programs had a major influence on the course of museum history in the United States, especially within departments of anthropology where generations of collecting left scores of materials un-catalogued, uncared for, and largely forgotten” (Samuel Redman, “The Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the New Deal, and a Reassessment of the ‘Dark Age’ of the Museum in the United States,” Museum Anthropology, Vol. 34, Issue 1, pp. 43-55, 2011. See article abstract here.)

(A WPA poster advertising an American Indian exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)  

“The museum is indebted to the Works Projects Administration for the substantial contribution of WPA employees to the work of almost all departments” (from a 1942 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, cited in Redman article above).

(Some structures built by the WPA are now used as museums, such as the McKissick Museum in South Carolina, originally a library. Image courtesy of the University of South Carolina.)

WPA workers also assisted museums by “building new exhibit spaces,” cataloging “new accessions,” organizing “information for curatorial publications,” and translating “foreign documents.” Furthermore, “Laborers from the CWA, WPA, and Civilian Conservation Corps contributed to archaeological projects in 24 states over the course of nine years…result(ing) in new collections for the Smithsonian as well as numerous other museums around the country” (Redman, see citation above).

(If you have an interest in archaeology, consider reading the book Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt's New Deal for America. Click here for a book review of Shovel Ready.)     

Today, many museums have problems associated with older structures, outdated utility systems, and lack of staff. Today, there are 27 million Americans who would like a full-time job but can't find one, and young adults are having more problems finding work than just one year ago. Unfortunately, there is no WPA, no CCC, no NYA, etc. Our political "leaders" are way too busy cutting funding for cancer research, cutting funding to prevent & fight wildfires, and looking for ways to kick low-income children and low-income seniors off food assistance programs to be bothered with American history and mass un- and under-employment.

(The WPA frequently offered art classes to children, and then displayed the children's art at museums. The clipping above is from the Baltimore Sun, September 25, 1938.)  

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