The Regional Review

Volume I - No. 6

December, 1938


By Arthur C. Parker,
Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences

When the science of archeology began to take form, gradually there dawned the idea that the artifacts of past ages spoke of mankind's record in terms by no means entirely uncertain. The so-called relic became eloquent. No longer was it a mere curiosity of the past but a sentence from the buried record.

The same idea is true of other enduring products of human manufacture. The feathered cape of the Hawaiian, the knot bowl of the pioneer, the spice boxes of our great-grandmothers, all are records of a particular time and environment. It remains for the student who classifies material culture to assign each object to its proper place and then to begin his descriptive interpretation. In other words history can be written by piecing together the evidences of man's thought as revealed by his handiwork.

But this history cannot be reconstructed by haphazard methods. Visible storage in museum cases of miscellaneous articles is not history. It is mere confusion. Order and sequence are necessary; the proper association of artifacts in their intended relations is necessary. Let us give an example.

A telegraph instrument, a desk, a chair, a number of buttons, a hooked rug, an old safe, a ragged ledger and a gas fixture might be distributed in a number of cases or even shown in one. We could state that these things were relics of the Western Union Telegraph Company. But what picture would this reveal? Nothing, perhaps, save that these things were used at the same time, which, of course, would have a certain significance. Let us try them another way. A room can be constructed showing the first Western Union office in Rochester. The articles may be placed in their logical positions and a figure of an early operator or official placed in the room. In this instance we have a picture, a convincing fact vividly presented. The relation is complete.

If we are unable to have such presentations we may still show the horizontal stratification of our culture by showing the typical utensils and implements of each stage of our historical development, thereby "writing" a record of culture progress that will bear comparison with the better types of ethnological exhibits. Indeed, our own productions are records of our own ethnology and should be treated as such. When this is accomplished we shall be able to read history in a new and more convincing manner and museums of history will take on a new and more significant meaning. -- Reproduced from Museum Service. vol. 11, no. 9.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002