Museum Studies Blog

Posted on May 12th, 2023 in Book Reviews, Student Work by Laura Holzman | Tags: ,

Libraries, Archives, and Museums: An Introduction to Cultural Heritage Institutions through the Ages. Suzanne M. Stauffer, ed. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021.


Cover ImageWhat is the purpose of cultural institutions and what are their roles in society?  Suzanne Stauffer’s book, Libraries, Archives, and Museums: An Introduction to Cultural Heritage Institutions through the Ages, provides a chronological, summarizing critique of cultural institutions from the ancient past through the recent past. Her process of evaluating history serves as a resource to enrich our understanding of social, economic, and the political context that has shaped and continues to shape cultural institutions. Today, these characteristics show up as ethical and moral discussions across the museum world.  Relevant issues I recognized while reading included what items are chosen for preservation, who decides what is obsolete, how wealth and power impact access, and the exclusion or misrepresentation of specific groups, especially poor and working class people, Indigenous Peoples, and African Americans to name a few.

The following two quotes offer a simplified example of how power and wealth controlled access in Classical Antiquity (Chapter 2):

“All of Rome’s republican libraries were, however, private collections. That was to change with Julius Caesar and the rise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty…certainly one of his many popular measures undermining the senate’s control over Rome’s politics and cultural memory” (34).

“The rise of the public library under the early emperors was part of a whole program of efforts to foster direct relationship between the Roman people and its rulers and to break up the information monopoly of the old aristocratic elites” (37).

This shows how a dramatic change in rulership used cultural institutions for political, economic, and social power. This change would go on to impact literacy and the building of a middle class. Eventually the process would start all over again with the fall of Rome and new rulers influencing access to cultural heritage according to their desires. This control can be seen throughout history and into today through the influence of museums directors, wealthy donors, and prominent community board members.

Looking at the period from 1789 to 1900, museums under go an evolution from collections of curiosities to knowledge-based and visitor-oriented institutions. “Key factors in this evolution included the form of narratives in museums, recognition that how objects are exhibited affects the way they are interpreted and transmits implicit messages about the relationship between objects, and the understanding that the exhibition of objects is central to the shaping of knowledge” (205). What people choose to preserve and how they interpret the materials defines part of the public understanding and opinion on what is being presented. Most recently, this comes into issue with Native American cultures being presented as ancient and “primitive” when in reality they are thriving and vibrant communities.

The conclusion of chapter 15, “Twentieth-Century Museums,” summarizes the desire to actively recognize and challenge how the economic, political, and social crimes, injustices, and challenges influence the museums and other cultural institutions. John Cotton Dana’s vision of a socially responsible museums was not yet achieved. Stephen Weil built on Dana’s idea, noting that “museum have shifted from object oriented to visitor oriented, or ‘from being about something to being for someone. Yet as history unfolds into the twenty-first century, museums, while ‘being for someone,’ are not ‘for everyone,’ and it will be up to future museum professionals to create museums that are for everyone” (247). The recognition of cultural institutions being both influencers and influenced leads us to think more wholistically about their role and purpose. Through this recognition and evaluation cultural identify and cultural heritage can begin to meet the vision of Dana and Weil: being for everyone.

Stauffer’s introduction to the book provides detailed descriptions of cultural heritage, cultural identity, the role of cultural institutions, and the purpose of the book. Followed by the first of many “suggestions for further readings” sections that accompany each chapter. The suggestion sections always include eight or more different sources showing the author’s dedication to providing the reader with a resource that will help with professional development. Her book includes sixteen chapters written by a collective of sixteen authors providing valuable perspective and expert information throughout the entire book.

This book goes beyond a simple history lesson. It evaluates how cultural institutions were shaped by money and power, and how that affects access in cultural heritage. It asks thought provoking questions challenging readers to evaluate the present through the lessons of the past. I recommend this book to all museum, library, and archive professionals as a foundation for understanding the social, economics, and political influence on our cultural institutions and embedded into our cultural institutions.


Kathryn Plank is a first year MA student in the Museum Studies Program at IUPUI.