Media History Often Plays a Marginal Role in US Museums

30 Jun 2017 11:59 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

By Dane S. Claussen, Thiel College

Over the years I have become interested in how media history emerges in spaces, especially but not only museums, in which it is treated as incidental and/or merely illustrative of other history. I first became interested in the phenomenon of media history being right in front of one’s face, but ignored anyway, more than 20 years ago when I seriously sought to find out how much importance rural sociologists gave to small-town weekly newspapers in their analyses of rural life.

It turned out: not much. In rural sociology books going back about 90 years from the mid-1990s, rural sociologists often wrote a chapter about churches, a chapter about schools, a chapter about town government, a chapter about the Grange Hall, etc., but nary a word about a small town’s newspaper or small town newspapers generally. Here was the kicker: in many cases, rural sociologists had used the bound volumes and sometimes other records of a small-town newspaper as a major source for their books while never mentioning in their book and articles that the small-town newspaper was of any importance to its town.

My recent visit to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museum in Fremont, Ohio, provides one example of this phenomenon. The Hayes museum proudly boasts that it was the first US presidential library, although visitors to the museum and Hayes house do not see anything that resembles one. In any case, the museum and library’s formation were led from start to finish by Hayes’ son, Webb Hayes, and one might expect that the museum would be overflowing with items that belonged to Rutherford, his wife, his parents, etc.

But from the very beginning of the exhibits, the viewer is struck by originals and copies (normally photographic) of paper, paper, and more paper: broadsides, flyers and, most notably, newspaper and magazine covers, interior pages, and especially cartoons and other illustrations. There’s the April 3, 1877, New York Graphic illustration of Hayes guiding a woman labeled “South” to shake hands with a woman named “North.” There’s the Feb. 23, 1881, Puck illustration of William Henry Vanderbilt, Cyrus Field and Jay Gould literally pulling the strings of the railroad, telegraph and banking industries. And many, many others. And yet, not only does the Hayes museum offer no context about news media’s explosion in illustrations at that time, but it doesn’t even bother to tell visitors what kind of role media played in either Hayes’ political career or the role media played in politics generally in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. This omission could lead the visitor to imagine everything from media then playing a major (even decisive) role to the media being of no importance other than a source of beautiful and/or clever illustrations.

Another museum that I recently visited is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. This one also is curious in various ways. The Museum building itself is very large and contains entire airplanes, entire trains, an entire house, dozens of automobiles, and hundreds of other items, including plenty of farm machines and much industrial machinery that one probably must be both a historian and an engineer to fully appreciate. Naturally, I was on the hunt for newspaper industry items—a Mergenthaler linotype would be at home there, as would a set of pre-linotype type cases, a stereotyping machine, a stat camera, or any number of other items (any of which would have been more interesting than dozens of other machines at the Ford Museum). What did I find? One hand-operated printing press inside, one outside, and nothing else. I confess that I was not familiar with the item on display: “Foster’s Printing Press, about 1853. This printing press turned the commonly accepted image of a press upside down. Instead of a lever pressing the paper down on the inky type, this press pushed the inky type up to the paper. It didn’t look like a printing press should look and printers were skeptical. They didn’t buy many.”

But considering: the equipment-heavy nature of the newspaper industry; the newspaper industry’s role in politics, economics, etc.; the newspaper industry was for many decades one of the country’s largest employers; the industry produced larger than life characters such as Horace Greeley or William Randolph Hearst; etc., the lone printing press at the Ford Museum is not much. (Granted, the Ford Museum also underrepresents the histories of the typewriter, radio, and the postal service. But it does not underrepresent all communication technologies: one big display case shows off nearly 50 telephones, while other areas display a variety of televisions over time and early computers.) 

Like the Hayes museum, however, the Ford Museum liberally uses the news media to illustrate exhibits of other industries’ technologies and products. In the museum’s political section, three color Harper’s Weekly covers from 1865 and 1866 illustrate former slaves becoming indentured workers; a full-color illustration from an 1862 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly illustrates the Civil War; and the February 1932 Labor Defender cover shows the Scottsboro Boys.

Elsewhere in the museum, a negative (white type on black background) image of an 1855 Providence Daily Journal illustrates an exhibit on engineer George Corliss’s patent battles; a World War I vintage Popular Mechanics magazine cover shows a then-new tank; a March 3, 1927 cover of the original Life magazine shows the Roaring Twenties lifestyle; issues of Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, LIFE, Rod & Custom from around 1960 illustrate that era; and the first 1984 issue of MACWORLD magazine helps with an exhibit on Apple’s founding.

The Greenfield Village adjacent to the Henry Ford Museum is a collection of period and replica buildings that have been moved there from other places, several hundred miles in many cases. Visitors can wander around it all day, riding in old Ford cars, interacting with docents in and out of costume, eating and more. Highlights for me included Henry Ford’s boyhood home, the Wright Brothers’ boyhood home, Thomas Edison’s laboratory buildings, Noah Webster’s last house and Harvey Firestone’s boyhood house. Greenfield Village is thus impressive in many ways, but surely the most famous open-air museum in the USA is Colonial Williamsburg. And both it and Greenfield Village were founded decades after Oslo’s Norsk Folkemuseum and Stockholm’s Skansen (each of which I have been lucky enough to visit).

Greenfield Village includes the Printing Office & Tin Shop, but it’s something of a botch—the building is clearly explained as having been built in 1933, but its exhibits include everything from noting Ben Franklin’s 18th-century printing business to a mid-19th century Washington hand press (not still used in 1933). Certainly Greenfield Village does not include a newspaper office the way that other open-air museums do, from Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (San Diego Union) to the Ohio Village at Columbus’s Ohio History Center.

All in all, the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village give the impression that the entire publishing and printing industry, let alone the journalism profession, has played a minor role at best in US history—whether political, economic, technological or what.

So imagine my surprise when I skimmed through a copy I bought of the 2006 book, Henry’s Attic: Some Fascinating Gifts to Henry Ford and His Museum, by Ford R. Bryan (Wayne State University Press). In addition to a full chapter on photographic equipment, the book contains a full chapter titled “Communications Equipment.” Detailed and illustrated are: Edison’s Printing Telegraph Transmitter, Cable Sheathing Machine, Edison’s Printing Telegraph Receiver, Edison’s Quadruplex Telegraph, Replica of Bell’s First Telephone, Sectional Model of a Telephone, Edison’s Carbon-Transmitter Chalk-Receiver Telephone, Telephone Switchboard, Telephone Desk Set, Wireless Telegraph Key, Wireless Spark Transmitter, Marconi Wireless Receiver, Replica of Home Wireless Set, De Forest’s “Singing Arc” Radio Transmitter, Low Frequency Radio Receiver, Atwater Kent Radio Receiver, RCA Radio Receiver, Steinmetz’s Portable Radio Receiver, “Majestic” Radio Console, High Altitude Shortwave Radio, Early Transistors, Early Television Apparatus: Jenkins’s Scanner and Baird’s Receiver, Facsimile Transmission Equipment, and Early Television Camera and Monitor. However, very few, if any, of these items are currently on public display at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

(Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles about media history's role in museums and history books.)

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Claussen is Editor of The Intelligencer and the James Pedas Professor of Media, Communication & Public Relations, Thiel College, Greenville, Pa. Regardless of what he might say or write about them, he enjoys visiting any and all museums in the USA and abroad.

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