Kathleen Curran uses the erudite German term Kulturgeschichte for the kind of art museum display known more commonly as composite or contextual installation. Her research has unearthed the minutiae of U.S. museum history, adding to the extensive, existing publications about its European precedents.

The author starts with the well-known roots of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (called the South Kensington Museum when it moved to its first permanent building in 1857) in industry and the mechanical arts. Installation of the collections was based on materials and technique, and Curran fails to tell the reader that the change to a cultural, rather than a craft, display began to take place in the mid-1930s. 

In contrast with the V&A, museums in Munich, Berlin, and Zurich had adopted chronological arrangements of objects in period settings—also favored by directors and board members in the United States. Likewise, the Americans looked to national museums like the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Their interest in emphasizing the era of each gallery was guided by the Cluny’s unusual chronological arrangements, exhibits of sculpture and architectural elements in the period style of the rooms where they were exhibited, and illumination that heightened the historical emphasis.

Considering that early museum installations were not photographed, the author has done a good job in supplementing existing black and white illustrations with plans of the buildings under discussion. Within the text, figure numbers printed in red are helpful.

Early American room, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1909.; Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company. Reproduction number: LC-DIG-det-4a24294.

Early American room, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1909.; Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company. Reproduction number: LC-DIG-det-4a24294.

Upon its completion in 1902, the Boston Museum of Fine Art took the lead in what Curran describes as setting “the standards for the first great era of public art museum construction in the U.S.” Among other fine points, it is fascinating to learn that in contrast to the whirlwind visits of comparable trips undertaken by search committees today, the museum’s president, building committee chairman, and the architects they had chosen (Sturgis Wheelwright) spent three months in Europe, visiting every major museum and gallery there. Their investigation decided the group on the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt (Alfred Messel, 1906), a Kulturgeschichte museum, as a model.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City followed suit. In describing its beginnings, Curran brings to light the outstanding men responsible for it. Wilhelm R. Valentiner, a young and talented Dutch Rembrandt scholar almost single-handedly created the Met’s new decorative arts department, where he began to work in 1907 at the request of John Pierpont Morgan. Valentiner, was in turn influenced by the formidable Wilhelm von Bode, director of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin, whom he assisted for two years. Then and now—after a sensitive renovation completed in 2006—the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum is a touchstone of high-quality composite arrangements of decorative arts, painting, and predominantly, sculpture.



When it opened in 1910, the Met’s Wing of Decorative Arts designed by McKim, Mead and White was the first part of the museum building planned with direct reference to the objects it would contain. Based on the open court plan of the Musée des Art Decoratifs in Paris, the New York museum followed the ideals of Kulturgeschichte that were expressed throughout the Boston MFA.

Morgan’s relationship with Francis Goodwin (president of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, 1890–1919), another luminary in this constellation of brilliant museum enthusiasts, produced strong architectural similarities between the two buildings. I, for one, had never noticed that the Morgan Hall in Hartford (by Benjamin Wistar Morris) is almost an exact replica, although slightly smaller, of the Met’s Decorative Art Wing. 

A chapter devoted to midwestern art museums also contains riveting nuggets of information. One, for example, explains the origin of “period rooms” in Minneapolis (inaugurated in 1915), where Valentiner’s associate curator, Joseph Breck, was the first director. Breck was able to include paintings in his composite displays, something Valentiner had not been allowed to do at the Met. For the Minneapolis director “period rooms” contained objects selected to represent a specific period of art; they were not rooms transferred intact from historical houses.

According to Curran, Cleveland’s museum (1916), which turned out to be a condensed version of the Boston MFA, set the standard for a series of midwestern museums. The garden court in Cleveland, with walls designed to reflect the artistic periods of adjoining galleries, was particularly influential. An interesting issue raised in this chapter is the contentious relationship that developed at times between the museum architect and its staff, with critics divided as to which should take the lead.

Curran considers the galleries devoted to American art the greatest evidence of Kulturgeschichte’s impact. Beginning with the display of this country’s art at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1909, she describes how Kulturgeschichte installations combined with elements of European national museums influenced the American Wing. Opened in 1924, the Met wing was among many near contemporary ones that “embraced historical rooms and composite displays as the preferred method for presenting life and art in colonial America.”

Fiske Kimball, the prodigious scholar of American history, enters the narrative here in his seminal role in the creation of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing. He exerted an equally decisive influence on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he became director in 1925, and mapped out an alternation of period rooms and composite display galleries in a triumph of Kulturgeschichte.

Curran’s work on the invention of the American art museum calls to mind Mary Anne Staniszewski’s illuminating history of installations at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. Curran’s concern is historical fine and decorative art; Staniszewki’s is modern art. For all those interested in museums and their origins, these behind-the-scenes accounts are deeply engaging, not least in their revelation of how what goes around, eventually comes around.

The Invention of the American Art Museum From Craft to Kulturgeschichte, 1870–1930
Kathleen Curran, Getty Trust Research Institute, $49.95

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