Imagination, Memory, and Reason


When I first read about Thomas Jefferson’s Library at the National Book Festival last year, I learned that he categorized his book collection into three main sections: Imagination, Memory, and Reason. I understood the three sections to correspond to art, history, and science, a common way of categorizing academic disciplines and knowledge.  At my college, we had general education requirements for which we had to take courses in three curriculum areas: Humanities and the Arts, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Math.  And in the museum field, we often think broadly of art museums, history museums, and science museums.

I recently visited the Library of Congress and spent some more time in Thomas Jefferson’s Library, where I learned his categories are a bit more complicated, at least when trying to translate them to modern epistemological paradigms. Jefferson’s Memory (history) category includes natural history and physics; his Reason (science) category includes ethics.

Fields of study can straddle categories in the university setting as well. Among the psychology courses I took for my undergraduate degree, some were designated in the social/behavioral science category, and others fell in the realm of math and natural science.

Not surprisingly, museums can be just as complicated. Clear-cut categories can be helpful in guidebooks, but in reality, classifications are blurred, perhaps more often than not.

Art-and-History Museums My current workplace, the Capitol Visitor Center, is an example of art and history together. While the exhibit space leans more on the history side, the things to see in the Capitol itself are both artistic and historical (in addition to the history being made right now – on your tour, you learn a bit about the workings of government today and you might catch a glimpse of a Senator). The frescoes, paintings, and sculptures are a feast for the eyes of art lovers, while history buffs might be most intrigued to see the room where Charles Sumner was caned.

George Catlin's Indian Gallery at the Renwick Gallery

George Catlin’s Indian Gallery at the Renwick Gallery

There are two Smithsonian museums in one building in DC, which both exhibit art but also have a lot to do with American history. The National Portrait Gallery’s website states that the museum “presents the wonderful diversity of individuals who have left—and are leaving—their mark on our country and our culture.” This museum is about history through the lens of artworks depicting people who shaped it. In one gallery, for example, are portraits of every American president. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibits cultural history through art: it is “an unparalleled record of the American experience.” The Renwick Gallery is a branch of SAAM in its own building, and this museum focuses on American craft. A sign on the building’s exterior reads, “Dedicated to art,” and indeed, the facility is. At the same time, its dedication to history can be seen. For instance, George Catlin’s Indian Gallery, on display from 2005 to 2009, is posited as a historic record of Native American cultures in the Midwest and West in the 1830s.

History-and-Science Museums Many museums that delve into the worlds of invention, transportation, and technology inevitably tell stories of advances that shaped society in addition to explaining the science of how things work.

National Electronics Museum

National Electronics Museum

The National Electronics Museum, located in Maryland, does so by demonstrating the fundamentals of electronics along with the impact of radar, space exploration, and telephones on the unfolding of events like World War II and the Cold War. Included in the museum is a great deal of military history, with a focus on defense electronics; visitors also learn about objects they use every day, like the microwave. On the National Mall, the National Air and Space Museum (often categorized as a science museum) teaches a lot about history as well, and the National Museum of American History (categorized as a history museum) includes exhibits on invention and technology.

Science-and-Art Museums It was somewhat more difficult to think of sites that could be considered science-and-art museums. Of course, there are botanic gardens and arboretums, which require aesthetic sense in displaying the living collection of plants. There are gorgeous photographs of nature and the universe in science museums; on the flip side, art museums can demonstrate the chemistry of materials used in a work of art. They can also display exhibits that double as science experiments, such as Beauty and the Brain at the Walters Art Museum.

Are there museums that are equally art and science? Museum friends of mine suggested the Exploratorium and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I have not been to either museum myself, but I learned from its website that the Exploratorium is “a museum of science, art, and human perception.” MJT points out that in early museums, “Collections of natural objects became as common as collections of works of art and often both such collections were housed in one repository.”

Smithsonian Castle

Smithsonian Castle

Art-and-History-and-Science Museums Occasionally a museum just dabbles into everything. An example is the Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the Castle, which showcases a little bit of each Smithsonian museum. Since the Smithsonian includes a variety of museums in many fields of study, the exhibit space in the Commons has works of art, objects of historical interest, natural specimens, and more. The building (which, in its castle shape, is pretty interesting in its own right) also includes James Smithson’s crypt and what was once a Children’s Room.

A Hierarchy of Disciplines? This question deserves its own blog post: what does it mean when one object is classified as an art object, or a history object, or a scientific object? Say there is a bowl. Putting it in one kind of museum or another sends a message about how experts look at and value that bowl, whether it is in a science museum (this bowl is an example of the tools of a primitive culture), a history museum (this bowl typifies styles and customs of a certain decade) or an art museum (this bowl is a great work of art by an acclaimed individual artist). Although the categories are nuanced and often blurred, they do exist, and with these categories come judgments when placing cultural objects in one kind of museum versus another.

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August’s blog theme is Museum Categories.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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