Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/September 1889/Museums of Household Products

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THE publication of a plan for establishing, in the capital of the German Empire, a “Museum of Popular Costumes and Products of Home Industry,” has aroused so earnest and general an interest that the realization of the thought may be regarded as assured. It may, it is true, be possible to carry it out at first only to a very limited extent, for neither sufficient means nor space can be secured at once for setting up a comprehensive institution. But the initial purpose of the authors of the enterprise will have been accomplished when they have exhibited a series of objects illustrative of their plan. They confidently hope that these examples will satisfy their fellow-citizens of the usefulness and even the need of such, a museum; and that the Government will assist it as it has assisted the technical museum, and will eventually take it under official care.

Herr von Gossler, the Prussian Minister of Worship, has already given the costume museum free temporary quarters in the old Industrial Academy, the present Hygienic Institute, in the Kloster-Strasse. The first acquisitions, which were made in the peninsula of Monkgut, in Rügen, satified him that profitable results could be secured. It is obvious that the acquisitions can be more easily made through private persons who are in more immediate intercourse with the inhabitants of the special districts, than through state officers, who will be hampered by numerous reserves. It seems clear, therefore, that the best course for the immediate present will be to excite interest in the enterprise among the people themselves; and to secure the participation of friends of the scheme in the practical support of its promoters. The development of the older museums has been predominantly to the advantage of the representative arts. Even architecture has been crowded into the background after sculpture and painting. Industrial art has been very slowly and tardily recovered from oblivion. Those highest efforts of human skill, while they arouse the admiration of the observer, vitalize and elevate the understanding, excite it to imitation, and give direction to the activity of whole generations. They have thus become pre-eminently the criterion of civilization.

But civilization has never anywhere come up at once. Many generations have to apply their best force, through slow labor, to gain artistic skill and make it at home. A kind of hereditary transmission assures the continuance of progress in this field, and in case of long interruption the recovery of aims and methods once possessed. Not only, therefore, does the investigator, the real art-expert, give his attention to the study of the history of art, but the question also occurs to the simple man of the people—who may have made such a great discovery, and how, in the course of time, ever higher degrees of skill and understanding in art are mastered.

Two circumstances have hitherto given deep significance to these questions, and extended them far over the domain of pure art: First, the increasing knowledge of the efforts of savages. This began with the great discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but only obtained that fruitful significance in the general view which is now apparent to all with the scientific expeditions of the last century, especially with Cook's voyages and Alexander von Humboldt's researches. Who does not know that the course of civilization from its rudest beginnings to an often surprising height, lies visible as in an open book in the savages of to-day, and that the development of society, law, and religions, as well as the ordering of the household and the whole theory of property in household goods and ornaments, domestic animals and useful plants, may be observed, now here, now there, in their gradual building up? Unhappily, the savages are disappearing with fearful rapidity under contact with civilized races; and it may be considered fortunate that the increased care in the observation and collection of the things peculiar to these perishing survivals of primitive times is exerted in preserving the objects themselves as well as the recollection of them, for future study. Thus are explained the origin and growth of ethnological museums, of which the one in Berlin is one of the best specimens.

The second circumstance that has determined with hardly less force the direction of late research is the shaping of archæology into a real science of prehistory. The growing interest in the European states in collecting the antiquities of the country, with the activity of Danish and Swedish students and the co-operation of several German investigators, have been the means of introducing general order and chronological consistency into this previously chaotic domain. The discovery of the Swiss pile-dwellings kindled zeal in the study through all Europe; and prehistoric museums are now among the institutions in the completeness of which each nation has a peculiar pride.

In this study, out of the graves and dwellings of our ancestors, is unfolding before us a new picture of the growth of human civilization; and we observe with surprise and wonder how it serves as a complement to the conception supplied by the view of the development of savages, so that one supplements the other. We look at our ancestors themselves as they stood in their day where savages are now.

Art-history proper is preceded by the history of labor; a long story, that began in the farthest primeval time, is still continuing, and is destined to continue ever. There is no boundary-line between the two, for no man can say where art begins, or toil for daily living ends. Art proceeds out of the labor of the day, as a flower from a bud. History and prehistory are only outwardly separate, while inwardly they are undistinguishable. As prehistory survives in the present savages, so likewise prehistoric traditions pass over into the lives of civilized peoples. The recovery and preservation of these traditions is a not less important aid to the understanding of civilization than prehistory itself; for they furnish the threads by which we can trace the connection of the past and the present in immediate sequence.

The connections of the oldest traditions are afforded first by language and legends, for the study of which no museums are required. Next to these in value are material objects, particularly useful ones, with which are associated antique designs and mythic—sometimes superstitious—meanings, and which also in their forms, decorations, and applications give very definite views of their age. It is the purpose of the projected museum of costumes and household goods to collect these objects—not the only purpose, for there are many stages in the historical development of peoples which have left their traces in dress and furnishings, but the principal one. A museum of costumes and household goods will, therefore, close the gaps between ethnological and prehistoric museums on the one side and between ethnological and historical museums on the other side. It will do for our own people what ethnological museums have done in relation to foreign peoples, particularly to savages; it will seek out objects of the present as historical museums have recovered them from the tombs and dwelling-places of primitive times; and will give for the common life and conduct of the peoples what historical museums have furnished as to their ecclesiastical and courtly life.

We have a right, therefore, to expect much from the museum of costumes and household goods. Experience has contradicted the objection that it is too late to carry out such a purpose. Our beginnings have already taught us that even in Germany one has only to inquire and exert himself earnestly to obtain a great number of objects of antique tradition. In other countries brilliant success has been achieved, especially in Sweden, which, through the indefatigable industry of Herr Hazelius, has had a model museum of this kind in Stockholm for many years. There are also notable collections of similar character in Moscow and Amsterdam; but the expectations should not be raised too high. Thus it is evident that what we perhaps too ambitiously call national costumes do not reach back into prehistoric times. There was then nothing like them. Such characteristic styles can exist only among those peoples of whom some of the tribes have continued in a kind of natural condition, and these are found in Europe only among those of the Finnish stock. With all the Aryan peoples of Europe the national costume is a relatively late, almost a modern, product. In Germany such costumes can be found only in limited districts, sometimes only in particular villages, and are seldom of earlier origin than the fifteenth century. Not a few of them were first fixed by the Reformation. The actual collection of the material may open the way to comparative studies that will furnish earlier dates, but this is likely to be the case only as applies to single parts of the dress.

Men are more permanent in their house construction, methods of tillage and of domesticating animals, in their furnishings and tools, than in their dress. Articles of stone, bone, horn, and clay, in particular, incline to be fixed in character. The groundwork of house arrangement persists through all the additions which the extension of the scale and the larger estate may entail; and it is, in respect to the family, as permanent as are the topography and flora to whole districts.

Whole houses can hardly be brought into museums except as they may be represented by models or drawings. Consideration will be given to these. Rooms and chambers may be introduced in complete arrangement, and we hope at the opening of the museum to make such exhibitions of apartments from various stations, by means of which, we shall be able to convey ideas of the more important parts of the house.

The new enterprise invites the active co-operation of our countrymen. As a rule, the people know best where such treasures as we desire to bring to light are to be found. We therefore ask them to help us gather up such national relics as still exist in the way of dress and house furnishings to be preserved for the observation of posterity.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Die Gartenlaube.