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The Invention of the American Art Museum From Craft to Kulturgeschichte, 1870–1930



  • Kathleen Curran

    American art museums share a mission and format that differ from those of their European counterparts, which often have origins in aristocratic collections. This groundbreaking work recounts the fascinating story of the invention of the modern American art museum, starting with its roots in the 1870s in the craft museum type, which was based on London’s South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, American planners grew enthusiastic about a new type of museum and presentation that was developed in Northern Europe, particularly in Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. Called Kulturgeschichte (cultural history) museums, they were evocative displays of regional history. American trustees, museum directors, and curators found that the Kulturgeschichte approach offered a variety of transformational options in planning museums, classifying and displaying objects, and broadening collecting categories, including American art and the decorative arts. Leading institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, adopted and developed crucial aspects of the Kulturgeschichte model. By the 1930s, such museum plans and exhibition techniques had become standard practice at museums across the country.

    Kathleen Curran is professor of fine arts at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

    “When you wander a little off the beaten track at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may find yourself in an 18th-century French bed· room, or In the Frank Lloyd Wright room, or the poignant Damascus Room, with its Arabic Inscriptions and splashing fountain. Al the Wadsworth Atheneum ln Hartford, recent reinstallations include a Dutch wonder cabinet on a grand scale. At the Art Institute of Chicago, the perfectly miniaturized Thorne period rooms are ever-popular. One doesn’t have these diorama experiences at the Louvre or London's National Gallery, or in the Prado. Is it a particularly American practice to shape a fine arts museum as a procession through periods of history understood through decorative and in architectural installations. The museum-goer who has wondered about this will find much to consider inn Kathleen Curran's book, The Invention of the American Art Museum.

    256 pages
8 x 10 inches
    119 b/w 
ISBN 978-1-60606-478-8

    Getty Publications
    Imprint: Getty Research Institute