A Curious Name

Thesis Process

A settlement: To those uninitiated to the world of Anglo-American social philanthropy, the name calls to mind a distant outpost, a windswept prairie, or a lonely pioneer town. It’s a curious name for an institution always, and intentionally, located in the midst of pre-existing community. To those who chose to live in them in order to work among America’s most disenfranchised populations, though, the unfamiliar terrain must truly have felt akin to a frontier. And, in fact, many of the country’s earliest settlements were founded at a time when esteemed historian Frederick Jackson Turner was developing his Frontier Thesis, claiming the foundation of American democracy was a product of its vast and seemingly endless frontier. Turner would articulate this thesis to an awed crowd of historians at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, while elsewhere in the city an intrepid group of “settlers” led by Jane Addams gathered the data that would be published as Hull-House Maps and Papers, surveying the conditions of their new environs.

A social settlement: It’s a problematic turn of phrase, to be sure. It implies existence at the edges of civilization and centers the experience of the colonizer instead of that of the colonized. It smacks of dominance and social Darwinism. It is not surprising that most surviving institutions of this sort have not retained that particular part of their names. Is this what settlement residents meant to convey? Is there significance in the fact that these institutions got their start in America at the exact moment many Americans began to feel the frontier, with its limitless democratic possibilities, was closing? It’s a thought that provides an interesting frame through which to view the rise of American settlements, their efforts at data collection and exhibition, and their quests for social reform.

At least one settlement resident reflected upon Chicago’s disappearing frontier as an opportunity for civic education. Edward L. Burchard had come to Chicago to work on mining exhibits at the World’s Fair in 1891, and became the first male resident of Hull-House upon arrival in the city. For the remainder of his life, Burchard would stay committed to Addams’ vision of the duties of settlement house staff as she’d dictated to him in 1893 for her essay “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. [Jane Addams, The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements, in Philanthropy and Social Progress: Seven Essays, 1893. 23.]

Twenty-one years later, in 1914, as he led a group of schoolboys on a field trip up to the summit of Chicago’s Masonic Temple, Burchard looked out over the city from the unparalleled aerial perspective of twenty-one stories, its then-highest vantage point. He was awed at the sight: he seemed to be able to see in every direction of time and space. As he reported at that year’s American Association of Museums meeting in Milwaukee, the connections between past and present became clear to him:

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.[Edward L. Burchard, Civic and Social Museums and Exhibits, Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums, 1914. 131.]

Suddenly, he could see much more than the frontier; apparent to him was the unmistakable evidence of 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. [Edward L. Burchard, Civic and Social Museums and Exhibits, Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums, 1914. 131-132.]

This, Burchard opined, was a true “civic exhibit.” It was a top-down view, clearly showing all of the various elements of a city and their interactions with their environment and one another. It represented to him 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. Burchard knew all about these tricks of the eye: twenty-three years after his Hull-House residency, he was heading up the Social Museum of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, as well as independently organizing social justice-related “civic” exhibits for display on the Chautauqua circuit and by the Chicago Civic Club.[Justin Edgington, “Burchard, Edward Lawver,” The Men of Hull-House: An Overlooked Aspect of Settlement Life. https://hullhouse.uic.edu/hull/urbanexp/main.cgi?file=new/show_doc.ptt&doc=515&chap=48.]

But where Burchard had a positive assessment of his top-down civic perspective, others were not so thrilled about the demise of the frontier and its democratic influence. Take, for example, Frederick Jackson Turner commenting in October of that same year. Calling up an example of Washington looking down upon a colonial Pennsylvania hill, Turner frets to think of what has become of that once virgin stretch of territory:

And then I remembered the hall in Harvard Museum of social ethics through which I pass to my lecture room when I speak on the history of the westward movement. That hall is covered with an exhibit of the working Pittsburgh steel mills, and of the congested tenements. Its charts and diagrams tell of the long hours of work, the death rate, the relation of typhoid to the slums, the gathering of the poor of all Southeastern Europe to make a civilization at the center of the American industrial energy and vast capital that is a social tragedy. As I enter my lecture room through that hall, I speak of the young Washington leading his Virginia frontiersmen to the magnificent forest at the forks of the Ohio. ["The West and American Ideals," The Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. 5 no. 4 (October, 1914)]

This divergence of opinion is representative of the reaction to the effects of industrialization in late nineteenth century America. 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. Turner was not the only academic to bemoan social inequity. Neither were they 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 has been identified by Daniel T. Rodgers. 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.

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The concept of the “social settlement” is one mainly lost to history. The community centers, social workers, and neighborhood activism groups which have taken its place today 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 since the 1890s. Faced with a crisis of identity at that time, professionals in the museum field sought to transform [their institutions] from a cemetery of bric-a-brac into a nursery of living thoughts. Innovative turn-of the-20th-century thinkers like Frederic A. Lucas, Paul M. Rea, George Brown Goode, and John Cotton Dana, inspired by the ideology and practice of social settlement pioneers, defined a new type of public museum that incorporated aspects of education and community engagement, an emphasis which has only grown in the ensuing years. 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.