The People's Museum: George Brown Goode's Collection of Sporting Goods for the Smithsonian Institution in Victorian America

Article excerpt

"The people's museum should be much more than a house full of specimens in glass cases. It should be a house full of ideas," contended George Brown Goode (1851-1896), the scientist, collector, curator, and administrator who guided the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum from 1878 until his premature death in 1896. (1) His leadership and visionary thought brought the Smithsonian's first museum into national cultural preeminence. He accomplished this in part by aligning the nascent National Museum with an emerging consumer culture and by incorporating upper- and middle-class ideals and popular interests into collections and displays. His acquisition of newly manufactured sporting goods--only one of the many types of collections he pioneered--provides an example of his innovation, inspired by progressive Victorian precepts. The acquisition reveals how he turned a small, elite scientific institution into the people's museum that today is the largest and among the most visited and diverse museum complexes in the world.

Goode's influence on museums was profound. He invented strategies for museums to become lively educational forums, repositories for collections with universal appeal, and monuments to American progress. As assistant secretary he propelled the Smithsonian away from a purely scientific bent into the realm of popular education. The collections he abundantly acquired survive disseminated throughout the museums on the National Mall. In 1888 he said:

   The museum of today is no longer a chance assemblage of
   curiosities, but rather a series of objects selected with reference
   to their value to investigators, or their possibilities for public
   enlightenment. The museum of the future may be made one of the
   chief agencies of higher civilization. (2)

Among the collections for the museum of the future, Goode included amateur sporting equipment, now in the Sport History Collection of the National Museum of American History. He chose objects marketed by the well-known Peck and Snyder Company through stores and its illustrated trade catalog. (fig. 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Why did Goode collect skates, bows and arrows, footballs, polo mallets, and tennis rackets? What did this prescient action mean? Those goods expressed ideas, as do all material goods, ideas that have changed over the 11 decades since their acquisition. This study discovers the meaning of these sports objects to their original museum-based collector and his contemporaries, and explores the intended effects of their acquisition.

Sport and consumerism are salient characteristics of modern America. During the late nineteenth century, sports emerged as worthwhile, purchasable commodities for most Americans. To understand the complex phenomena of mass consumption of sport is to go beyond examinations of the market and the consumer, however, to ask questions about the roles of the cultural elite, museum educators, and the government. To find what sport and its material expressions meant to the people who shaped American educational and cultural institutions, and why and how they communicated their visions, we can look to the surviving sport collections and the social/cultural context in which they were gathered and displayed.

George Brown Goode's 1882 acquisition of amateur sports artifacts for the Smithsonian's United States National Museum provides a case study. Goode was an important actor as both a collector of historic and ethnographic artifacts and as an influential museum educator. For this study, the sport artifacts are the informants as perceived within the context of American society's increasing acceptance of and participation in sports. By viewing the artifacts and their acquisition we come to a better understanding of how and why they reflected and fostered outdoor sports and the amateur athletic ideal. The actions of these individual and artifactual actors at the Smithsonian Institution are examined as an important national scientific, cultural, and educational tradition at a critical time in the history of mass-consumed sports in America. …