The Separation of Museum & State

Says nuthin’ ’bout museums, so screw ’em.

Recent research into history reveals a startling future for museums. Just weeks after Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous “wall of separation between church and State” letter to the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association, he wrote another letter  where he said essentially the same thing about museums and the state, but without the pithy quote.

It began with Charles Willson Peale’s attempt to find government subsidy for his American Museum. Peale wrote to then-President Thomas Jefferson hoping to find presidential support for establishing a federally-funded national museum. Unfortunately for Mr. Peale the president made it very clear, without actually saying whether or not he agreed with it, that the Federal government was not Constitutionally permitted to operate a museum. Here is a complete transcript of Jefferson’s letter which is in the collection of the Library of Congress:

Washington, January 16th, 1802

Dear Sir:

     I received last night your favor of the 12th instant. No person on earth can entertain a higher idea than I do of the value of your collection nor give you more credit for the unwearied perseverance and skill with which you have prosecuted it, and I very much wish it could be made public property, but as to the question whether I think that the U.S. would encourage or provide for the establishment of your Museum here? I must not suffer my partiality to it to excite false expectations in you, which might eventually be disappointed. You know that one of the great questions which has divided political opinion in this country is Whether Congress are authorized by the constitution to apply the public money to any but the purposes specially enumerated in the Constitution? Those who hold them to the enumeration, have always denied that Congress have any power to establish a National academy. Some who are of this opinion, still wish Congress had power to favor science, and that an amendment should be proposed to the constitution, giving them such power specifically. If there were an union of opinion that Congress already possessed the right, I am persuaded the purchase of your Museum would be the first object on which it would be exercised, but I believe the opinion of a want of power to be that of the majority of the legislature.
     I have for a considerable time been meditating a plan for a general university for the state of Virginia, on the most extensive and liberal scale that our circumstances would call for and our faculties meet. Were this established, I should have made your Museum an object of the establishment, but the moment is not arrived for proposing this with a hope of success. I imagine therefore the legislature of your own state furnishes at present the best prospect. I am much pleased at the success which has attended your labors on the Mammoth. I understand you have not the frontal bone. If this be so, I have heard of one in the Western country which I could and would get for you. On this I need your information. I shall certainly pay your labors a visit, but when, heaven knows. Accept my friendly salutation and respect,
Thomas Jefferson

Since so much of our current Constitutional understanding comes from Jefferson’s correspondence it appears that the Federal Government needs to get out of the museum business. Which means no more American Art Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Holocaust Museum, National Arboretum, National Gallery of Art, National Museum of African Art, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of the American Indian, National Park Museums, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and the National Postal Museum. It also means that the Institute of Museum and Library Services would be defunded. And since government money will no longer be available to museums, we won’t need our own lobbyists, making the AAM unnecessary.

One museum director, commenting anonymously, said, “we value primary source research such as this. It is our life’s blood. But perhaps, just this once, we should suppress the findings.”


About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

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