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Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Museums of the Peaceful Arts: A Timeless Dream Detailed in a Curious Set of Scrapbooks

The charter for the Museums of the Peaceful Arts, 1914
 It’s a familiar scenario: the United States, Canada and Europe are experiencing a persistent economic downturn, widespread unemployment, labor troubles, and a general sense of restlessness and lost opportunities. What remedy exists for this bleak situation? Perhaps a major stimulus plan, with the costs being shared equally by state and local governments and a group of public-minded industrialists, bankers, and other influential members of society who firmly believe that state-of-the-art industrial education, more efficient practices, and American ingenuity can launch the nation into a new era of lasting peace and prosperity. So, are we talking about 2011? Um, no …!

Actually it was nearly 100 years ago, in June 1912, that George Frederick Kunz (1856-1932), the president of the Association for the Establishment and Maintenance for the People in the City of New York of Museums of the Peaceful Arts, stood before the attendees of the seventh annual meeting of the American Association of Museums and floated an astonishing proposal, so bold in its vision that his audience must have felt a mixture of strong hope and skepticism. Make no small plans, as the saying goes. What Kunz was proposing was the establishment in New York City of a group of twenty new museums devoted to various categories of industry and learning (for example: aviation, agriculture, health and hygiene, and architecture), clustered around a large stadium for public events, with meeting rooms and a library to serve the educational needs of children and working adults. The project was to be called the Museums of the Peaceful Arts, in acknowledgement of the long period of relative peace that existed between North America and Europe following the end of the war of 1812. As Kunz envisioned it, factories that had been devoted to armaments could be converted instead to manufacture new consumer products like laundry machines, and the garbage that accumulated in a city as large as New York could be recycled or used as fertilizer for growing crops nearby in the fields of Long Island and New Jersey. How could the world be made anew? By making it convenient for people to study examples of all kinds of industrial machinery and practices gathered together in one place, in a location tentatively set in Riverside Park, Manhattan, or near the Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx.
Newsclippings with portrait of Kunz
Kunz and the other members of the Association, which included inventors Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla and Arctic explorer Robert Peary, had put a lot of thought and research into their plans for the Museums of the Peaceful Arts. A ten-volume set of scrapbooks compiled by Kunz between 1912 and 1930, and housed today in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, is practically a gold mine for anyone interested in the methods of American museum management during this period. Kunz, a mineralogist and authority on gems who worked with Tiffany & Company and the United States Geological Survey and who had been actively involved with the programs for several world’s fairs and industrial expositions, gathered together information from the American Museum of Natural History, the Heye Foundation (Museum of the American Indian), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Newark Museum, the American Museum of Safety, and the United States National Museum (the predecessor to the museums of the Smithsonian Institution). His scrapbooks document all aspects of creating and running a museum, from the design and construction of buildings and exhibition cases, to the acquisition and cataloging of collections, to staffing (which, as he noted, “need not be extravagant”), to educational programs and publicity materials. The scrapbooks are filled with newsclippings, photographs, blueprints, ephemera, and typed documents on all sorts of topics related to museums and industrial education.

Early 20th century children viewing a
painting,from v. 8 of the scrapbook.
Note the roller skatesdraped
over their shoulders!
 The Museums of the Peaceful Arts project was conceived as a bold vision to help solve current economic problems and boost the education level, skill, and prosperity of inhabitants in the New York City region, with the hope that the new inventions and creative synergy inspired by the Museums would lead the United States to dominance in international trade and power. But what happened to it? For a few years, a core operation to support the project, with administrative offices and a few exhibitions, was based at 24 West 40th Street in Manhattan, near the main branch of the New York Public Library and the Engineers Club. A few million dollars were raised from bequests and endowments, but nowhere near the $25,000,000 to $30,000,000 that Kunz estimated would be necessary to bring the complete vision to reality. In the 1930s, the grand plans for a 20-museum complex were finally scrapped, and for awhile, the collections that had been acquired for the Museums of the Peaceful Arts were housed at the New York Museum of Science and Industry. Eventually, the remaining endowment funds were apparently divided up between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. And Kunz’s vision, so optimistic, so magnificent, for the establishment of the Museums of the Peaceful Arts withered away, leaving hardly a trace other than these scrapbooks.

In 1997, when I formally cataloged these volumes which the Smithsonian had acquired in the 1950s from New York City bookseller Dauber & Pine, I remember posting an inquiry on the Museums-L listserv asking whether anyone knew what happened to the Museums of the Peaceful Arts. The only response I received was from Steve Lubar, a fellow Smithsonian employee who was Chair of the Division of the History of Technology at the National Museum of American History. He said he recalled that the Smithsonian (or rather, the U.S. National Museum at the time) had lent some artifacts to the Museums of the Peaceful Arts which had never been returned, and he wondered what had happened to them. It’s a mystery, still.

Diagram for the Marine and Hydrographic Building
The daring plans of Kunz and his supporters to launch a massive museum complex as a way to spur economic growth, industrial progress, and the re-training and education of American workers for a golden age of peace and prosperity were dashed by a lack of funding and two world wars characterized by increasingly lethal technological innovations. However, it seems harsh to sneer at the naïveté and optimism of the project. The sense of creativity and hope inherent in the enterprise, so scrupulously detailed in these scrapbooks, are characteristic of a spirit which so many people would like to recapture today. The typescript and handwritten notes, the black and white photographs, and other materials that document the dreams, fresh ideas, and best practices of American museums in the early years of the 20th century, might perhaps be considered a forerunner of collaborative efforts in the 21st century to create a virtual community of museums, libraries and archives, accomplished not with bricks and mortar but with websites, linked data, and cross-searchable collections online (like the SIRIS and SI Collections Search catalogs!). How will our efforts look a hundred years from now? Not as fantastic as the grand design of the Museums of the Peaceful Arts, if we're lucky.

George Frederick Kunz Papers in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, ca. 1880-1932 and undated (a related collection)

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries


  1. I've posted an entry for the Museum of the Peaceful Arts on the webpage. Maybe you can post some of these or other images there.

    I'm also working on a biography of Dr. Kunz.

  2. Thank you for your comment! It's great to hear from someone who is writing a biography of George F. Kunz. He had a fascinating life and career, with a strong vision for the role of museums in education and as centers of civic life. I have done a little work with Wikipedia already, and you're right, this would be a good opportunity to add more detail to the article that you've started (when I can grab a bit of time to work on it).