Recently some thoughtful museum and library folks have been rereading and thinking about John Cotton Dana. Dana was a progressive-era force for change, relevance and democracy in libraries and museums, and the founder of the Newark Museum. The museum, said Dana, needs to be of use to its visitors, not a temple to its patrons’ riches. To that end, he suggested new models for museums, most famous of which is the department store. He was also a strong advocate of contemporary collecting as a direct illustration of the relevance of museums.
Surely a function of the public art museum is the making of life more interesting, joyful and wholesome; and surely a museum cannot very well exercise that function unless if relates itself quite closely to the life it should be influencing, and surely it can not thus relate itself unless it comes in close contact with the material adornment of that life—the applied arts.
All this is preface to saying that maybe you should be reading Dana too. The ideas that excite us now, about the participatory museum and the ways in which museums can serve our communities, are not new, and are supported by the work of past museologists.
Many of Dana’s essays are online. Check out, for instance: