Panoramic Vision/Specular Dominance

Thesis Process
Masonic Temple Chicago

The Chicago Masonic Temple in 1901. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Edward L. Burchard ascended Chicago’s Masonic Temple in 1914 with a group of schoolboys eager to see the city beneath them. The summit of the 21-story building, then the city’s tallest, offered an unparalleled aerial perspective. As he later reported at the year’s American Association of Museums meeting in Milwaukee, he was awed by the view. From his vantage point, he seems to be able to see in every direction of time and space. First noticing the environmental landscape that surrounds them, Burchard is then able to see connections between the past and present:


From horizon to horizon we saw the clear blue lake, bending from southeast to the heart of North Chicago, the source of this city’s cool atmosphere and cleansing winds. We saw below us the portage of great explorers, the Chicago River, passing from its mouth past the site of old Fort Dearborn and then between lines of warehouses on its banks to the branches that form the “Y” of Chicago’s symbol. We saw reaching far out into a pall of smoke the great radial avenues that once were plank roads, the former paths to Green Bay, to the Galena lead mines, to the early French out-posts on the Mississippi, and to the Vincennes, on the older national highways to the Atlantic.

But then! Evidence of the city’s progress and all the complex machinations of industry and government that bring about human joy and suffering:

Upon these diverging spokes lay before us a great rigid gridiron of streets squared by compass, those underneath us congested with human overflow. Farther on shuttles on wheels darted back and forth distributing the city’s material and human burden. We saw enormous monsters rising from the darkening chasms of the deep about us and towering skyward, some occupied with a small city of people and representing enormous wealth, even to a single taxer. And then again structures that stepped down on less and less costly land from warehouses to factories, from mansions to distant humble dwellings. At the hub we saw the Federal Building and dome, that reproduction of Architect Hunt’s beautiful conception at the World’s Fair- here a symbol of government. (Proceedings of AAM 1914, 131-132)

This, Burchard opines, was a true “civic exhibit.” A top-down view, clearly showing all of the various elements of a city and their interactions with their environment and one another. A way to relate the issues of the part to the problems of the whole. A complex concept made coherent by a slight adjustment of perspective. It had been 23 years since Edward L. Burchard joined Chicago’s Hull House as its first male resident, but his persistent commitment to the ideology of the settlement movement remained evident. Now, in his work as the director of the Social Museum of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, he was working to expand upon Jane Addams’ vision of the duties of settlement house staff as she’d articulated in 1893 in “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” :

They are bound to see the needs of their neighborhood as a whole, to furnish data for legislation, and use their influence to secure it. In short, residents are pledged to devote themselves to the duties of good citizenship and to the arousing of the social energies which too largely lie dormant in every neighborhood given over to industrialism. They are bound to regard the entire life of their city as organic, to make an effort to unify it, and to protest against its over-differentiation. (Philanthropy and Social Progress: Seven Essays, 23)

Burchard was not the only Progressive to wield the example of a panoramic perspective to illustrate his interest in the entire city as living organism. Neither was he the first to see the confluence of purpose between settlement and museum work, nor to instrumentalize the methodology of one in the service of the other. Rather, these institutions, as with many others of the time, drew from a common discursive wellspring of “progressive” ideas about power diffusion, cultural democracy, social cohesion, and a faith in quantifiable solutions to qualitative societal problems, as identified by Daniel T. Rodgers (“In Search of Progressivism,” 123). This ideological commonality facilitated innovation that would revolutionize the “public museum” as well as the methods by which settlements advocated for legislative and social reform.

The concept of the “social settlement” is one mainly lost to history. The community centers, social workers, and neighborhood activists which have taken its place in the urban organism largely do not incorporate the principles of museum practice in their operation. But museums, for their part, have internalized elements of settlement ideology, including a desire to function as a holistic community resource. Community museums, pop-up exhibits, and public art projects have their roots in the municipal museums, social museums, and art education initiatives championed by settlement workers in the Progressive Era.


Edinburgh's Outlook Tower as it appeared in 1915. Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution: An Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and to the Study of Civics

The inspiring image of a panoramic, synoptic “civic exhibit” would have been a familiar one to fellow Chicagoans Jane Addams, George E. Hooker, and Charles Zueblin, settlement pioneers and associates of Scottish sociologist Patrick Geddes. As so many institutions of Great Britain - Toynbee Hall, Browning Hall, Octavia Hill’s housing estates - had proved inspiring to settlement workers of the United States, so did Geddes’ Edinburgh Outlook Tower. As Zueblin described it in 1899, “at once school, museum, atelier, and observatory, [the Outlook Tower] may fitly be called the world’s first sociological laboratory” (“The World’s First Sociological Laboratory,” 592). Topped by a camera obscura revealing a stunning view of the city below it, ascent of the Outlook Tower required procession through five floors of exhibits describing the historical context of the region in increasingly narrow increments of granularity. Quoting Geddes, Zueblin highlighted the underlying theory of this synthesis: “While our studies are nothing if not historical, they must begin with the present day, and the past be seen by help of the present; while our studies are nothing if not geographical, they must begin at our own doors; and while nothing if not scientific, they must still begin with art!” (“The World’s First Sociological Laboratory,” 592) The next year, in 1900, Zueblin, Addams, and Hooker met to declare their intention to incorporate elements of Geddes’ vision into a museum in Chicago where each thing appears in organic relation to the whole; [and] touches the every-day life of the people at its most vital points and makes its appeal direct to the reason and imagination (The First Report of the Municipal Museum of Chicago, Chicago Public Library, 1905-1907, qtd. in Brown, “The Chicago Municipal Museum,” 235). The Chicago Municipal Museum, opened in 1904, would be the eventual fruit of their labor.

From its inception, the Chicago Municipal Museum embodied the experimental and innovative values of settlement work. Unlike other contemporary museums, it was not intended to be an institution with a permanent collection, but rather as a sort of “educational clearing house” providing space for displays, illustrated lantern-slide lectures, guided tours, and public discussion of contemporary social issues (Brown, 241-242; Ball, “The Municipal Museum of Chicago,” 218). Its stated purpose - to be “A continuous exposition in city making, illustrated by the use of graphic methods, development of cities and the relation of the geographic, industrial and social forces involved in the making of them” - was essentially an expansion of the settlement aims beyond the micro level of a neighborhood, to the macro level of a city (Proceedings of AAM 1914, 135). This community-engaged, empirical, and experimental methodology emulated exactly the “practical and experimental development of […] principle, in the spirit of humanity” that Herman F. Hegner of the Chicago Commons [FN: The Chicago Commons would later become the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy] had identified in 1897 as “the most valuable contribution of the settlement movement to the science of sociology” (Hegner, “The Scientific Value of the Social Settlements,” 182). [FN: Addams points out the value of the settlement’s “flexibility, … power of quick adaptation, … readiness to change its methods as its environment may demand.” (Qtd. in Jackson, Lines of Activity, 44)] Years later, the Museum’s “propaganda display of idealistic conceptions towards which our city should develop” would be labeled “futurism” by Edward L. Burchard, a tacit acknowledgement that settlement workers and museum organizers alike “act[ed] with the hope of directing the next course of human history” (Proceedings of AAM 1914, 136; Jackson, 38).

The Chicago Municipal Museum was located in a gallery of the Chicago Public Library, itself an innovation of progressive ideas of democratic education. Brown credits the Museum’s instant popularity to its location, which came with an existing audience (Brown, 242). However, several of the Museum’s initial exhibits had been gathered after their display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis provoked great interest among visitors to the Palace of Education and Social Economy (Ball, 215-216). [FN: Carroll D. Wright, U.S. Commissioner of Labor, was instrumental in organizing the exhibits of the Social Economy section, although he was to busy to carry out the duties of directorship. In the Social Economy section, “[t]he experience acquired and methods employed by these countries were shown in the improvement of conditions of industry and labor, the advancement of public welfare and health, the organization and regulation of provident institutions, public charities, corrective measures including the treatment and reformation of criminals, temperance measures, social betterment movements, and municipal improvement” (Francis, The Universal Exposition of 1904, v.1, 179).]

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Image from "City Welfare Aids and Opportunities," Bulletin No. 13 of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, October 1911.

Other exhibits from the Exposition were collected into various and sundry “social museums” usually connected with universities, described by Edward L. Burchard as “the working tool of the professorial staff of applied ethics” (AAM 1914, 137). These social museums were modeled on similar European institutions like the Mus e Social in Paris. They shared the settlement impulse to approach broad societal problems in an empirical way, but in eschewing field experience, “emotion and sentimentalism,” acted a settlement inverse, in a sense (Peabody, The Social Museum as an Instrument of University Teaching, 1). Analysis of social conditions took place back in the university classroom, after statistics and imagery had been remotely retrieved by social scientists. Francis Greenwood Peabody, who founded in the Social Museum of Harvard University in 1903, described the institution as “the first attempt to collect the social experience of the world as material for university teaching, and to provide guidance for academic inquirers into the study of social progress” (Peabody, The Social Museum as an Instrument of University Teaching, 4).

The Social Museum of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy remarked that once they began loaning out exhibits to other schools, “as a direct result […] there has been increased interest on the part of the college students in social subjects and the work of the school” (“Announcements 1911-1912,” Bulletin No. 13 of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, July 1911, 26). This would have been considered a great victory for the field, given that male students were much less likely to involve themselves in residential settlement work. Certainly the power dynamics of this investigative manner varied quite significantly from the fieldwork model. Tony Bennett (sic) describes the ambition of the international exhibitions as “to make the whole world, past and present, metonymically available in the assemblages of objects and peoples they brought together and, from their towers, to lay it before a controlling vision” (“The Exhibitionary Complex,” 79). Social museums had the potential to compound this power differential by eliminating the public audience and contributions that once would have accompanied the exhibition materials and aggregating all of these possible positivist narratives in cloistered spaces for experts “to render cities knowable” (Ibid.)

Remainder of 1st section of paper (in progress):

These exhibits would also end up furnishing the Reading Public Museum (founded in 1907). What is a public museum! How is it different from other museums? [“If public libraries, why not public museums”] John Cotton Dana and his totally sweet ideas. People who were inspired by JCD’s totally sweet ideas.

Art education initiatives. Hull House Labor Museum. Geddes’ ideas, about education giving people agency [“The World’s First…”]. Jackson compares settlement work to an act of artistic re-formation, and its iterative effect on both residents and neighbors [Lines of Activity]. JCD is really freaking excited about normal people doing art [correspondence with PMA; see also “Work of An Art-Association in Western Towns”]