William & Mary

The venerable, educational Smithsonian Institution: Feejee Mermaids need not apply

  • Off to the National Mall:
    Off to the National Mall:  Kasey Sease was awarded a five-month predoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Museum of American History. A Ph.D. student in William & Mary’s history department, her fellowship will further her dissertation work on how the early Smithsonian was influenced by capitalism.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The Smithsonian Institution got its start during an era in which P.T. Barnum was running a scientific “institute” of his own, but Kasey Sease points out that the two museums were never competitors in any sense.

“First of all, it's important to point out that around mid 19th-century, the SI did not cater to the public like it does today,” Sease explained. “The iconic red-bricked castle was overwhelmingly devoted to professional research space and a library, not public exhibits.”

Sease is a Ph.D. candidate in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at William & Mary. She was awarded a five-month predoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Museum of American History. The experience will allow her to continue work on her dissertation, titled “Marketing Agencies for Science: Nonprofits, Public Science Education, and Capitalism in Modern America.”

She also is the recipient of the People’s Choice Award from the poster session from the 18th annual Graduate Research Symposium in March and took first place in the Graduate Arts & Science Three-Minute Thesis Competition in October 2018. In addition, she was awarded the John E. Selby Teaching Prize by the history department in 2018.

Sease is probing what she calls “the blurred boundary between public science education and profit” in the U.S. She is particularly interested in how the forces of capitalism affected the development of the Smithsonian. She suggests that the difference between how free enterprise played out on the National Mall versus Barnum’s American Museum might be exemplified by Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. The jackalope of its day, the mermaid was a monkey head mounted onto a fish body.

“It genuinely perplexed 19th-century Americans who lived in a world where scientists were still trying to establish themselves as trusted experts,” she said, adding that Barnum cannily mixed his mermaid and other hokum exhibits among true scientific curiosities.

The Smithsonian, on the other hand, began life as a compendium of legitimate natural specimens and fruits of Gilded Age industrial capitalism. Sease pointed out that the early Smithsonian wasn’t designed for public consumption, let alone Feejee Mermaids.

“It was not until the Smithsonian opened the Arts and Industries Building — the National Museum Building — in the early 1880s that it finally had a large space dedicated to showcasing artifacts and exhibits to the general public,” Sease explained.

The Smithsonian as we know it is largely the product of the working relationship of Spencer Fullerton Baird and George Brown Goode. Sease relates that the two met when Baird was serving as commissioner for the United States Fish Commission (and also as the Smithsonian’s assistant secretary).  

“Baird convinced Goode to volunteer for the Fish Commission, and the two grew very close as Baird proceeded to teach Goode not just about marine biology, but the responsibilities of his own job as assistant secretary,” Sease said.

Goode joined the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum shortly before Baird was named Smithsonian secretary, the top position at the organization. Sease said she wants to find out more about Baird’s mentorship of Goode, who began the drive for the Smithsonian to open its growing collections available to the general public.

“For this reason, Goode is sometimes referred to by scholars as the ‘father of the modern American museum’ and the inventor of the ‘new museum idea’ — the concept of a museum as an institution organized and run by trained professionals to educate the general public,” Sease said.

Goode’s first major task working for Baird involved preparation of exhibits for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition — the first World’s Fair held in the United States. It was the optimum home-court venue for anyone who wished to tell the story of the value and potential of American scientific discoveries. The event gave John Q. Public a first look at new consumer products that ranged from Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone to the Remington typewriter to Heinz Ketchup.

“World's Fairs were events that showcased the industrial and cultural advances of nations jockeying for power in a rapidly-evolving capitalist world,” Sease explained. “Because of Baird's direction and Goode's work, the Smithsonian Institution was at the forefront of the U.S.'s involvement in the Fair's worldwide circuit.”

Sease said many of the exhibits from the Centennial Exposition found their way to Washington D.C., where the Smithsonian accommodated them through construction of the Arts and Industries Building, opening them up for public viewing in what could be considered a perpetual World’s Fair in the nation’s capital.

And the Smithsonian grew. Sease said a symbiosis developed between the museum and American corporate interests, especially those who were involved in what we now call technology transfer. New scientific discoveries became new industrial or consumer products, many of which were subjects of educational exhibits in the Smithsonian.

The era was marked by many instances in which corporate and public interest converged. She cited the example of an interactive display donated by the Automatic Electric Company. It was a telephone showcase that consisted of a pair of handsets that allowed visitors to experience a telephone conversation with each other. The handsets were connected by wires that ran through a clear glass display case.

“While the Smithsonian was not outright endorsing Automatic Electric Company and its products, it was demystifying the telephone by teaching visitors how it worked,” Sease explained. “The display made the telephone comprehensible at a time when people were trying to figure out whether or not they wanted to bring this foreign object into their home.”

The decades passed, and the Smithsonian began creating educational outreach content in the form of its Scientific Series, a set of twelve books that included volumes such as “The Sun and the Welfare of Man” and “Minerals from Earth and Sky.” The museum took to the airwaves, too, producing a popular 1930s radio program called “The World is Yours.”

All the while, corporate America became more interested in marketing, and its effects could be seen in how industry-backed exhibitions were presented. Sease described a 1950s exhibit titled "The Telephone: An Exhibit of Telephone Progress at the Smithsonian Institution," presented in a partnership with Bell Telephone Laboratories. It was “overwhelmingly celebratory” of the changes brought to American homes and promised that new technology would continue to make the future even better.

“Clearly Bell hoped to advertise its newest innovations while instructing museum goers on their function and utility. In the same way that education can be used as a form of advocacy, so too can it advertise,” Sease said. “I hope to learn more about why these partnerships developed and how often over the course of the Smithsonian’s history during my fellowship.”