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Museum Attendants

History

Museums in the United States not only display unusual or beautiful objects but also educate visitors in the historical, cultural, and scientific circumstances in which such objects came into existence. It is also of great importance to educate visitors about objects' modes of production, their relationship to similar objects, and the place of humans in an intercultural and biological universe.

Early museums in the United States were private collections staffed by their owner or the owner's family. In such cases, the owner often served as director, attendant, preparator, curator, publicist, and carpenter. An early successful owner-attendant, Charles Willson Peale, is generally credited with starting the first natural history museum in postcolonial North America, the Philadelphia Museum, which opened in 1786. He exhibited specimens in naturalistic settings, against backdrops he had painted. His museum became an unofficial repository for specimens acquired on western trips of exploration, such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's expedition. Peale may also have begun the practice of printing catalogs of his holdings and reissuing them from time to time as the number of specimens increased or as more accurate identifications became available. Peale was not only the director of the museum but also its chief attendant and educator. He had irreproducible knowledge of the specimens, their origins, and their potential contributions to the state of science in the United States. He spread this knowledge freely through informal chats with visitors, publications, and correspondence with European collectors. The techniques Peale pioneered and his ideas about exhibition defined directions for U.S. museums for the next century.

As U.S. museums grew in size, scope, and operating budget, institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago were founded and housed in massive Greek-influenced structures during the late 19th century. However, the growth of these large museums did not adversely affect the development of small community- or family-owned museums. Attendants of such small museums may also serve as directors, or may be unpaid volunteers. As they go about their daily business, these attendants replicate many of the daily functions of the early directors of U.S. museums.