Life on Display

Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2014 | ISBN: 9780226079660
Published online May 2015 | e-ISBN: 9780226079837 | DOI:
Life on Display

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Once defined primarily by their collections, by the end of the twentieth century, American natural history and science museums had become institutions defined largely by their displays. This book uses life science exhibits to illustrate how and why this transformation occurred. Efforts to modernize displays shaped and were themselves shaped by new institutional roles and identities for museums in twentieth-century science education and in American culture. The book reveals the controversies that accompanied exhibition building, chronicling how and why curators, designers, and educators worked with and against one another to build displays intended to communicate new ideas about topics like evolution, animal behavior, and ecology to the American public. It explains that scientists were extraordinarily invested in the success of museums’ displays and saw display as an integral element of their own public outreach work and research agendas. In turn, rapidly professionalizing exhibit designers were periodic participants in the research process, supplementing and sometimes prompting research projects through the displays they built. Based on a decade’s worth of research in a dozen different archives, this book analyzes the shifting meanings and values assigned to museum display by scientists, critics, policy-makers, and the broader public. By describing how contemporary scientific and social trends intersected in American museum exhibits, it offers a new historical perspective on the institutional and cultural development of museums of science and nature in the twentieth century.

Keywords: natural history museums; science museums; biological display; science education; public understanding of science; exhibition design; visual culture of science

Book.  481 pages.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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