S.J. Redman – Graduate Student, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley Microhistory in the Museum

13 January 2013

Many of the world’s museums are built around large and diverse collections of objects which were brought together from the far reaches of the world. These collections are intended to represent and catalogue everything from ancient and contemporary cultures, to long extinct animals, and fascinating geological phenomenon. While most people think of museums as places for the teaching and dissemination of history and science, the process of building museum collections itself has left behind a rich mosaic of histories across the globe. While most members of the general public who visit museums never think about the many stories behind the development of the institutions that they are exploring, some historians have begun to question how exactly our museums came to be as they are today. While a relatively small number of professional historians have chosen to study the history of museums, those who have chosen to do so are uncovering a valuable resource that sheds light on the history of the development of academic disciplines, cross-cultural contact, and the history of science. In this paper I will attempt to address how historians might utilize microhistory in exploring the history of the museum.

Studying the History of Museums and their Collections

In a recent article entitled, “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies” Randolph Starn aptly described the development of academic literature surrounding museums and museum studies in the past quarter-century. Starn wrote:

In 1989, the editors of the first book on history museums in the United States complained about a ‘blanket of critical silence’ surrounding the subject . . . As it happened, a tidal wave of museum studies was just beginning to crest, many proclaiming critical agendas while complaining about their absence. The problem these days is how to navigate the flood of literature on the theory, practice, politics, and history of museums.i

While this article is not intended to be a bibliography of the available literature on the subject of museology, (Starn’s article provides a solid starting point) it is important to note that a wide-variety of scholars have begun to explore museums and museum studies, including the study of their own history. While Starn acknowledges the fact that a wave of museum related literature has appeared, he laments that few professional historians have explored the subject of museums. Many scholars of cultural or visual studies are brought into museum archives via the study of their own unique disciplines. While art historians, paleontologists, and archaeologists are often capable of shedding light on how the historical scholars in their own disciplines made an impact on the museum community, they often struggle with placing their research into a broader historical milieu. Historians, on the other hand, are capable of placing the development of museums into a broader social and intellectual context and are typically more capable of explaining historical developments without the use of heavy, jargon laden texts.

Historians should be interested in museums for several reasons, not the least of which the work of curators throughout history illuminates a largely untapped intellectual histories that are parallel to the academy. Many scholars fail to recognize the fact that in some disciplines, like anthropology and archaeology, museums were the focal point of the intellectual development until well into the twentieth-century. Ignoring museums archives will leave major gaps in studying the history of these sciences.

In addition to being capable of shedding light on various aspects of intellectual history, museums are capable of reaching broad and varied audiences socially. While recent studies in the United States indicate that a majority of contemporary museum audiences are both affluent and whiteii, it is probably that museums throughout history have been capable of educating audiences more diverse than universities. While many students, even at the university level, are not given exposure to coursework related to paleontology or Egyptology, for example, museums manage to give broad audiences an introduction to these types of complex subject matters. The work of museum professionals, then, is capable of having a broad and far-reaching impact on the public’s ideas surrounding various topics.

Problems in the Study of the History of Museums

Microhistorians hoping to conduct research in museums continually face several problems. Firstly, museums around the globe are incessantly facing budgetary limitations. These budgetary limitations can lead to several direct frustrations for the microhistorian. Perhaps most importantly, historians, as well as other researchers may struggle to gain access to archival materials because of the museums inability to provide staff hours to assist the researcher. In a perfect world, many museums would be interested in funding historical research on their collection, however, with a lack of funding items like fellowships and research assistantships are some of the first programs to be removed from museum budgets.

Fortunately for the historian, museums tend to keep sound and complete archives, because, as I will discuss later, museums benefit from having historical information surrounding their collections. Archival information in museums, however, can sometimes prove to be frustratingly inconsistent and incomplete. In an ideal situation, museum archivists will record all of the scholarly and popular publications and research associated with their collections. A lack of communication, however, can often lead to research being entirely forgotten by the museum.

An additional problem facing museum registrar, as with any archivist, is a lack of institutional consistency over long periods of time. Numbering systems, cataloging, and various other elements of museum protocol will undoubtedly change over time. It is important that outside researchers understand the nature of these changes, and the potential implications for their research.

How Microhistory can add to New Museum Studies

Microhistory, or the study of the past on a very small scale, allows the historian to place events, objects, or individuals under very close scrutiny while at the same time potentially placing these same events, objects, or individuals vis-à-vis a broader contextualization.

In conducting microhistorical analysis of any sort, the historian may choose to continually ask him or herself what exactly their research is teaching them about the accepted grand narrative of certain histories. In my recent research project, for example, I was surprised to find that many of the Old World, or Classical, archaeological collections found in American museums in the Midwest were not collected by official museum sponsored archaeological expeditions as I supposed, but rather, a surprising large percentage were simply purchased as souvenirs by wealthy benefactors of the museum and later donated.iii While microhistorians are capable of playing the role of iconoclast, their research might also prove to provide further elucidation of a generally accepted narrative. In providing evidence furthering an accepted viewpoint, however, microhistorians often provide both interesting and more humanistic narratives falling within a grand framework.

The most common type of microhistory in museum studies is research surrounding single objects or specimens. Museums themselves have long been eager to sponsor this type of research simply because the acquisition of new information related to an object’s provenance increases the value, both scholarly and monetary, of a specimen. Many of these microhistories have been written by museum professionals seeking to add bits of information to an object in their own collection.

Most typically, and perhaps unfortunately, museum professionals often are forced to turn to online search engines to conduct quick and general searches on the nature of various objects. Museum professionals simply cannot be expected to know details about every single type of object in their sometimes vast collections, however various sources are typically available to them right in the museum. Most museums, both in the United States and Europe, have digital databases which provide a general framework for researching the collection. Finding an object’s location on the shelf, understanding its current condition, and perhaps even learning who purchased, collected, or donated the object might be found in a museums computerized database. Unfortunately, however, computerized databases are only as good as the human being entering the raw data into the machine. Compounding the problem for the researcher, not all of the data which can be made available will be entered into computerized databases. Now old-fashioned catalogue cards, for example, sometimes contained hand-drawn sketches or old photographs of objects not scanned into the database.

Museums will typically undertake and/or sponsor microhistorical analysis of collections or objects under certain circumstances. Museums often undertake fresh research on their own collections when outside researchers begin to ask general questions about the objects in their possession. If a researcher writes an enquiry asking if any material in the collection was gathered by a certain ethnologist, or zoologist, for example, this may send a museum professional first into a computerized database, then into the archives for a complete answer. While museums should always be interested in gaining background information, or the provenance, of any given object or collection, certain types of request can provide the impetus for more complete research. On a day-to-day basis, this might mean that a general request from the public might lead the museum professional to a collection largely collected by a single collector. In answering the original question, the museum professional might turn to the internet or various sources available in the library for general biographical information available on the collector to pass on to the researcher. Museums are also given to provenance research when their object is being given valuations, a common practice, especially when objects are being either loaned out, or sold.

Once a research question has been formulated, scholars should be capable of researching various types of microhistories within the museum. An art museum might be the appropriate setting for biographical research of an artist, a history museum might request that information be gathered on questions related to material culture, or a natural history museum might find information on the collecting methodologies of a particular historic curator or donor. A hypothetical example of this would be if the archival information available in the database were to ascribe painter only a name, and date range of his or her life span. If an outside researcher were to provide the museum with deeper biographical information regarding the life-history of the artist, or the painting itself, it can provide various kinds of value to objects. Museums sometimes note previous owners of certain objects, or how certain elements in a painter’s life history may have impacted their artistic style. In museum research, to provide another example, it is not uncommon for visiting archaeologists to provide information regarding certain types of collections where gaps may exist in the curators’ knowledge. In augmenting the available information, even with minor pieces of background knowledge, the value of a collection may be greatly increased.

Exploring the history of museum expeditions also illuminates several fascinating aspects of museum history. Historic museum expeditions not only represent an important aspect of the history of science, it also brings to light fascinating accounts of cross-cultural contact associated with expeditions. In addition to lending itself well to cultural, intellectual, and scientific research, historic museum expeditions also provide an established narrative. All professional museum expeditions have some form of impetus.

While non-museum professionals may think of all expeditions as being the result of a curator’s desire to fill a gap in their collection, some museum expeditions, especially joint expeditions undertaken with other museums or universities, are taken under more serendipitous circumstances.

A number of archaeologists have begun to utilize the term, ‘cultural biography of objects’ in describing the life-history of various specimensiv. This type of study, archaeologists argue, is necessary to understand the various meanings ascribed to an object vis-à-vis its different owners throughout time. What an object meant to its initial owner, might be different from its meaning to the owner of that same object several generations down the line. This concept can be useful in exploring the history of museum collecting and collections. Comparing the altering meaning of various specimens to different groups or individuals throughout time can allow the researcher to explore the sociological importance of a piece throughout time. This type of research can prove to be of historical, sociological, and/or anthropological interest if certain conditions exist. An example of this might again be a study of a museum sponsored collecting exhibition. Exploring the history of an expedition, predicated on a western scientific ideal, naturally becomes of interest to those interested in cross-cultural interaction as well as the history of science or discipline development. Microhistorians might be apprehensive to undertake such a project, however, if narrowed down to a finite group of objects, or an individual, or small group of individuals, the rewards can be sizable.

In my article, “What Self Respecting Museum is Without One?: Collecting the Old World at the Science Museum of Minnesota, 1914-1988”, I explored how different individuals both within and outside of the museum helped to craft a collection representing certain periods and cultures of ancient history. Studying how this collection was brought together allowed me to gain a better understanding of both the intellectual and social perception of ancient world cultures throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the specific history of building this type of collection is specific to the Science Museum of Minnesota’s experience, it is not wholly unique, the Science Museum of Minnesota provides what Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson has called the “normal exception”v.

In the example of the Science Museum of Minnesota collection, the project’s focus was determined by the type of collection, Old World or Classical archaeology, and the narrative of the project was naturally determined by the dates in which objects of this kind began coming into the museum, and when they came to a halt. In addition to examining the development of the collection over type, it became clear that the role of the individuals who donated, collected, or purchased the collection was of paramount importance. Elucidating these ideas vis-à-vis microhistorical analysis allowed me to better understand the development of the collection and gave me a better understanding of the history of museums as a whole.

These types of microhistories are plentiful within the history of museums, and should continue to be explored by historians and museum professionals alike.

The Interdisciplinary Nature of Microhistory in the Museum

Microhistory within the museum is necessarily an interdisciplinary and multi-faceted study. Historians working in museums need to possess a basic understanding of the theoretical underpinnings both of the overall museum as well as the specific department(s) within the museum they are researching. A historian studying the development of an anthropological collection in a museum will need to possess an understanding of the history and theory of ethnology and/or archaeology as well as attempting to understand the intended focus of the museum.

In my early research, I was astonished at how museums and museum collections had evolved away from their original statements of purpose. This drift can often be attributed directly to the influence of wealthy donors or trustees. Of the three museums I studied in the Midwestern United States, for example, none had originally outlined a plan for collecting objects from Old World or Classical period. It was exactly these types of objects, however, that various wealthy donors and trustees were donating to the museums I studied, and therefore, museums like the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago began to build collections reflecting the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. While curators eventually accepted, and indeed embraced, these developments intellectually, it was important for me to gain the understanding that this was not their original intention.

In order to understand the early results of my research, I needed to posses at once a general grounding in the intellectual history of museum collecting as well as the discipline of archaeology. Additionally, in attempting to place the actions of the wealthy collectors and trustees, as well as the crowds of visitors lining up to see the newly formed exhibits, I needed to rationalize their actions vis-à-vis a broader socio-cultural understanding of American history.


The museum offers an attractive place of study for the historian. In attempting to maintain provenance information related to each specimen, it has traditionally been in the best interest of the museum to maintain strong archives, with detailed information regarding how each specimen was acquired, where it originated, and who was involved in each transaction. The amount of information related to each specimen may vary greatly, however, and the historian is often asked to search far and wide to add information to the documents from outside sources.

Most, if not all, museums maintain some form of archives related to their collections. Perhaps the most prevalent of these archives are accession files. Accession files are intended to document the acquisition of a new object and are often utilized to track the life-history of an object. If a historian or museum professional is lucky, the object will have been described in some detail by the collector, and additional information related to its life-history in the museum will be available. Some of the more complete accession files will maintain a record of photographs, correspondence, publications, and research projects related to the specimen. The less fortunate historian or museum professional, on the other hand, will perhaps find only a single document recording the purchase or acceptance of the object.

Perhaps the most important action a historian can take before entering the museum to conduct microhistorical analysis would be to narrow down what kind of collections he or she would like to examine. At the Logan Museum of Anthropology in Beloit, Wisconsin, a small, but impressive, museum on a college campus, I was given a list of around thirty files related to my subject matter. At the Field Museum of Natural History, a significantly larger national museum, my search required me to examine over 500 files. Historians examining a specific object or museum expedition might only need to examine one accession file before moving on to other sources, however, historians should be mindful of the relative size of the collection they intend to examine before requesting information from museum professionals. If guided to the proper museum professional, a potential researcher should be able to gain some understanding of the amount of material related to the research topic available at the museum. As a museum professional turned historian, I was fortunate enough to start to gain an understanding of the nature of archival research in the museum setting early on in my career. A historian interested in undertaking this kind of research who has never worked in a museum setting before might simply start with one object at his or her local museum before embarking on a larger project. The local museum might even be able to provide the historian with a small-scale research project to prepare for larger projects.

Most often, museums maintain valuable records outside of the accession records. Museum archives may include the minutes of departmental or trustee meetings which may help the historian understand the political milieu of the museum through the time period of interest. Additionally, I have known museum archives to contain field notes, films, and extensive collections of photographs.

While researching these sources, historians and museum professionals will often be pointed in the direction of valuable outside sources, and it is important for the researcher to recognize when such an opportunity presents itself. An example of this is the fact that a sizable percentage of museum trustees have traditionally been and continue to be the heads of major corporations. The private companies that the trustees represent often keep records related to influential individuals within their company. This may clarify the biographical information related to trustees who made an impact upon the museum.

In addition to understanding the inner workings of the museum, historians choosing to explore microhistory within a museum will be asked to place each event, object, or individual within a broader social and intellectual context. Each historian will need to predict what sort of knowledge he or she will be asked to possess, however basic understanding of the laws surrounding the collection of specimens, and the intellectual evolution of the related discipline will always prove to be helpful. An added understanding of broader socio-cultural trends will assist the historian or museum professional in understanding the actions of the general public, whose donations, and interests often prove to be of supreme importance in determining the direction of the museum.

Is Comparison of Museum Histories possible, and if so, to what benefit?

Exploring the history of a museum is one area in which the historian will see the direct benefit of his or her work. Once a historian has become comfortable with museum archives, their results of their research could potentially add to what is known about a museum’s collection. Museum professionals will often ask all of their researchers, not just historians, for copies of their findings in order to elucidate various parts of their collection. In submitting microhistories related to the museum, historians are not only offering insights to their own academic community, they are allowing museum professionals to gain practical information related to their collections.

As a practical note, it would be wise for historians to keep close track of where they found each bit of information they intend to use in their research. Not only will the historian use this information to track his or her sources, the information can be copied back into the archives. Once the research is completed the historian might be asked to write brief memos or informal notes outlining specific bits of information related to various parts of the collection. An example of this might be a simple collections management error that the researcher may have discovered. In addition to brief notations, museums will often place entire papers or manuscripts in various museum files in order to add to the available information related to each file. In the case of the historian analyzing the history of a specific painting, for example, this might only lead to a few small notations in a single file or it may lead to several copies of the work being placed in each one of the painting’s files. Future researchers who stumble across the previous work of both historians and museum professionals, however, will no doubt be grateful.


Microhistory allows the historian to closely examine an individual institution’s or object’s past. Studies surrounding museum collections are helpful not only to the researcher, but also to the museum and good relations between historians and museum professionals should continue to grow well into the future.

Historians who have successfully conducted microhistorical analysis have uncovered captivating information related to several different kinds of history. Historians interested in social history will find the museum useful as a tool for broad education of the general populace. Historians interested in intellectual history will find the work of museum curators and staff to be revealing toward the changing ideas of their discipline. Additionally, historians interested in cross-cultural contact will no doubt be mesmerized by the accounts of those participating in museum-sponsored expeditions.

Historians and museum professionals interested in utilizing microhistory will be pleasantly surprised in the wealth and value of information available to them. Given the right combination of knowledge, skill, and experience, the historian will be allowed a fascinating glimpse into a rich and largely underutilized history of the past.


This article would not have been possible without the inspiration of Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon’s work on microhistory. In working on this article, I found myself articulating the intellectual framework for my research developed over the past several years. Without Magnusson’s encouragement, this newfound clarity would not have been possible. I would also like to thank the Journal of Microhistory’s co-editor David Olafsson who read a late draft of this essay. Without the wonderful museum archives and archivists that I have worked with over the past few years, my research would have hit a dead-end. This article is for my sister, Elisa and in memory of our mutual inspiration - Owen Redman.

Further Reading:

Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Asma, Stephen. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Nash, Stephen and Feinman, Gary, Eds., Fieldiana, Anthropology, New Series No. 36: Curators, Collections, and Contexts: Anthropology at the Field Museum, 1893-2002, (Chicago, Field Museum of Natural History Press, 2003).

Gosden, C., Marshall, Y. 1999. The Cultural Biography of Objects. World Archaeology. Vol. 31 No. 2. 169-178.

Starn, R. 2005. A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies. American Historical Review. Vol. 110 (February 2005). 68-98.

Excerpt from Riches, Rivals and Radicals: The Collectors Who Shaped the American Museum. Schwarzer, Marjorie. Museum News. January/February, 2005.

Redman, S.J. 2005. What Self Respecting Museum is Without One?: Collecting the Old World at the Science Museum of Minnesota, 1914-1988. Collections: A Journal For Museum and Archive Professionals, Vol. 1 No. 2. 309-328.

Whiteley, Peter M. 2004. Why Anthropology Needs More History. Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol 60. 487-514.


i Randolph Starn, “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies”. American Historical Review, February, 2005. Pg. 68.

ii The study, which was released in March of 2006 was conducted by the University of Chicago and was reported by many of the major news outlets in the Chicago area. Associated Press, “Study: Chicago’s Cultural Attractions Don’t Lure Minorities, Low Income”. Thursday, March 16, 2005.

iii Redman, S.J. 2005. What Self Respecting Museum is Without One?: Collecting the Old World at the Science Museum of Minnesota, 1914-1988. Collections: A Journal For Museum and Archive Professionals, Vol. 1 No. 2. 309-328.

iv Gosden, C., Marshall, Y. 1999. The Cultural Biography of Objects. World Archaeology. Vol. 31 No. 2. 169-178.


v Magnusson, S. What Is Microhistory? Published May 8, 2006. Online. History News Network (HNN).