I wrote this book review for the Tufts Museum Studies Blog in January 2012. I'm reprinting it here as the first in what will be many book reviews, all indexed on my new bibliography page.
Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence
Edward P. Alexander
First published in 1983 by the American Association for State and Local History, Alexander’s broad overview of energetic museum founders and their famous museums is only a little bit worn around the edges. Much of the information he considers belongs to the historical past rather than the more recent past. Only when he finishes each chapter with small “where are they now” updates and refers to the Soviet Union or East Germany does he really go wrong.
Alexander set out to write short biographical histories of several men and women whose life work culminated in the founding of a famous or influential museum – Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum, Charles Willson Peale and the Philadelphia Museum, Dominique Vivant Denon and the Louvre, and so on and so forth. The chapters are arranged chronologically and are self-inclusive: each is its own essay, and can be read independently. The structure makes this an easy book to pick up and put down repeatedly, and each individual chapter is 25-40 pages long and can be read in a day.
Alexander’s writing style is lively but informative, and for the most part he manages to organize and present large varieties and volumes of information succinctly and well. Many of the figures he cover had extensive careers even before they turned their attention to museums; in fact, for some of them, their museum work was nearly an afterthought. One of the strengths of his approach, however, was connecting the energy and innovation of individuals to institutions, and then to the larger museum world. He specifically sought out museums whose course was fundamentally altered by a single personality for his study.
I read this book hoping to see how individuals could change the course of museums, and while I don’t think I found the key I was looking for, I did come away with a great deal of respect for the clear visionary leadership that each individual showed. Some chapters stood out in that regard: Denon and the Louvre, Ann Pamela Cunningham and Mount Vernon, Artur Hazelius and Skansen, and John Cotton Dana were all especially good in showing how vision could create new archetypes for museums.
In summary: recommended for those who are seeking out examples of how clear vision can change the museum world, and who are interested in the backstory behind some of the world’s greatest museums.