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Making Culture Visible

By Julie K. Brown | HUMANITIES, July/August 2001 | Volume 22, Number 4

“Why for a decade have the most advanced libraries been laying stock of photographs?” Charles Ammi Cutter, president of the Massachusetts Library Association, asked in 1900. “Why are we all now tumbling over one another out of eagerness to get photographs or some near approach to them?” Photography became popular with libraries late in the nineteenth century as recognition grew that the photograph was a form of information, as well as a tool for distributing visual culture.

The 1890s was a time in which a number of public-spirited librarians—Cutter, John Cotton Dana, Samuel Swet Green, and Herbert Putnam among them—moved forward with a vision of serving the general good. Their belief in the educational value of photographs coincided with the opening of the stacks in public libraries and an expansion of branch libraries to reach new populations.

One of the institutional leaders was the Boston Public Library, which had opened a new building in Copley Square. Photographic reproductions of paintings, archi-tecture, and sculpture filled the space, enabling the people of Boston to study European cultural treasures without going any farther than downtown.

The core of the collection consisted of eleven hundred photographs given in memory of Harriet H. Graupner. One photograph was a stunning representation of the Sistine Chapel produced by the nineteenth-century photomanufacturer, Adolph Braun of Dornach, Switzerland.

The head of the Boston library, Herbert Putnam, wanted to obtain another thirteen thousand photographs to put Boston on equal footing with Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. On an 1897 trip, he added 6,765 photographs, which were quickly replacing the more expensive engravings that had served as a guide to Europe’s art.

Another official of the Boston library shared Putnam’s great expectations. Otto Fleischner, head of the Fine Arts Department, wanted to attract patrons from a broader spectrum—especially those in the artisan class, who were not traditional library users. His device was an “Industrial Pictorial File” modeled on the collec-tions of the great industrial museums of Berlin, Frankfort, Vienna, and London’s South Kensington.

South Kensington had one hundred thousand photographs cataloged according to thirty-nine subjects. Fleischner came up with a similar if more modest goal: an “index to the arts” for use by industrial designers, artisans, and craftsmen. The index covered architecture, church interiors, furniture, painting, pottery, and textiles, and was broken down into narrower categories and cross-indexed. The result was a virtual inventory of the history of industrial and architectural design. By 1900 it numbered 5,438 images.

With a standardized mounting format, photographs could be set up for display with a minimum amount of time and effort. This “is a library not an art museum,” said Fleischner.

In one exhibit, the library showed its new building on Copley Square along with development plans for the area. Another showed photographs of the Civil War, many of them by Mathew Brady. Some exhibits grew out of the larger social context of fairs and expositions. An 1898 display, for instance, showed photographs of Dr. Dudley Sargent’s anthropometric statues of the American college student, based on Sargent’s studies at Harvard University and shown earlier at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The Sargent photographs served as an example of a new visual culture in America. It was a period in which the photograph played a part in convincing the public of the value of its social relationships, the truths of scientific inquiry, and the veracity of information imbedded in the image.

About the Author

This article is adapted from a new book by Julie K. Brown, Making Culture Visible: The Public Display of Photography at Fairs, Expositions, and Exhibitions in the United States, 1847-1990, published by Harwood Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, 2001. Brown has been a scholar at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and at the National Museum of American History Library in Washington, D.C. She received an NEH fellowship to research this book.