Peale's mammoth undertaking proves flawed, but still fun


December 04, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Stuffed animals. Live animals. The tattooed head of a New Zealand Maori chief. Gas lighting. The skeleton of a mastodon. Rembrandt Peale's portrait of Andrew Jackson. A night-blooming cereus. An Egyptian mummy. Two "learned dogs." Miss Honeywell, a woman without arms who made silhouettes. Four Sandusky Indians. Paintings of nude women, including Peale's "Dream of Love" and John Vanderlyn's "Ariadne."

All of those items were exhibited at the Peale Museum in Baltimore between its opening in 1814 and 1829, and some of them are back at the same Holliday Street location for "Mermaids, Mummies & Mastodons," the new exhibit that attempts to trace, in the words of its subtitle, "the evolution of the American museum." It's a great idea, and the results are both fun and instructive, if somewhat flawed.

The brainchild of Peale Museum curator Richard Flint, "MM&M" could hardly have a more appropriate site; the Peale is the oldest building in the Western Hemisphere specifically constructed as a museum. It is not the oldest museum, however. When painter Rembrandt Peale opened it, he was following in the footsteps of his father, painter Charles Willson Peale, who had been running a Peale Museum in Philadelphia since 1785 -- and his was not the first, either.

Although the Peales were not the only museums in America, the exhibit, spread throughout the second floor of the small Peale building, tells the story of early American museums largely through them and P. T. Barnum's museum in New York.

Unlike today, early museums were run by private individuals for profit. They were not specialized and scholarly, but combined art, natural science and entertainment. They were the forerunners of everything from zoos to circus sideshows to vaudeville.

The exhibit -- which will be on display for about 18 months -- traces their origins from the Renaissance "cabinet of curiosities," containing unusual natural specimens. Peale's Philadelphia museum combined this idea with rows of portraits, as shown by the exhibit's reproduction of the famous 1822 Peale self-portrait lifting a curtain to show his museum's "long room."

This picture faces out of the show's first gallery and into the second, where we find ourselves in a room similar to the one in Peale's picture. Not a replica of any single gallery, it represents an attempt to reproduce the type of room one would have seen in the Peale and other early 19th century museums.

The centerpiece of the room is a replica of one of the two mastodons Charles Willson Peale exhumed in 1801 in New York State (one was exhibited in Philadelphia and the other for a time in Baltimore). Cases on three sides of it contain items from the Peales and other early American museums, including the outer case of the first Egyptian mummy brought to the Western hemisphere, and exhibited at the Baltimore Peale in 1824; a reproduction wax figure of Daniel Lambert, an Englishman who weighed over 700 pounds; artifacts, stuffed birds and a number of portraits. This well-conceived and executed gallery

is the high point of the exhibit.

The next gallery, containing displays showing non-museum ways disseminating education in the period, is a mistake. This is an exhibit about museums, and there was no need to use even a small amount of the Peale's precious little space on side issues. Why not represent some other museums of the time?

There's wasted space in the final and largest of the show's galleries, which begins with a time chart showing the history of the Baltimore Peale Museum until it moved from its Holliday Street location in 1829. Subsequently, when it had become essentially a theater, P. T. Barnum leased it for a couple of years in the 1840s; that gives the opportunity to segue to Barnum's museum in New York, called by Barnum "the ladder by which I rose to fortune."

He did so with sideshow attractions and hoaxes such as the fake "mermaid" in this show more than by genuine scientific or art exhibitions, and by the middle of the century many American "museums" had fallen to such a state.

There are some period illustrations of the kinds of attractions Barnum showed, and there is a stage to indicate the entertainment aspect of the mid-19th century museum. But there's no real feel for Barnum's establishment. This room is a far cry from the mastodon room opposite.

What in essence we have in this show is the early American museum as seen through the Peale museums. That may be adequate to fulfill the promise held out by "evolution of the American museum," but it seems a little skimpy. Moreover, "evolution" doesn't seem the right word, for, as the show points out, the subsequent development of serious, scholarly museums such as Boston's Fine Arts and New York's Metropolitan represented a break with, more than a descent from, the popularization and showmanship of earlier museums.

The exhibit's intermingling of reproductions with real art and artifacts must give some pause. This occurs most disturbingly in a row of three portraits of and by Peales, two original and one a photo reproduction. It's so labeled, but this practice tends to blur the distinction between original and reproduction. Certainly early museums did much worse, but we don't want to go back to those days, do we?

Considering the three years' planning that went into it, this could have been a better realized exhibit. But it reflects a lot of research, it addresses an interesting subject and it provides what Charles Willson Peale said a museum should provide: "rational amusement."

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