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Life on Display

Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century

Life on Display

Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century

Rich with archival detail and compelling characters, Life on Display uses the history of biological exhibitions to analyze museums’ shifting roles in twentieth-century American science and society. Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain chronicle profound changes in these exhibitions—and the institutions that housed them—between 1910 and 1990, ultimately offering new perspectives on the history of museums, science, and science education.
Rader and Cain explain why science and natural history museums began to welcome new audiences between the 1900s and the 1920s and chronicle the turmoil that resulted from the introduction of new kinds of biological displays. They describe how these displays of life changed dramatically once again in the 1930s and 1940s, as museums negotiated changing, often conflicting interests of scientists, educators, and visitors. The authors then reveal how museum staffs, facing intense public and scientific scrutiny, experimented with wildly different definitions of life science and life science education from the 1950s through the 1980s. The book concludes with a discussion of the influence that corporate sponsorship and blockbuster economics wielded over science and natural history museums in the century’s last decades.
A vivid, entertaining study of the ways science and natural history museums shaped and were shaped by understandings of science and public education in the twentieth-century United States, Life on Display will appeal to historians, sociologists, and ethnographers of American science and culture, as well as museum practitioners and general readers.         

Listen to the authors interviewed on New Books Network.

456 pages | 23 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Biological Sciences: Natural History

Earth Sciences: History of Earth Sciences

Education: Education--General Studies

History of Science


"Focuses on the evolution of U.S. science and nature museums from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, stitching together a number of surprising insights into an excellent history."

Kirk R. Johnson | Science

"The exquisite dioramas in New York’s American Museum of Natural History have wowed crowds since the early twentieth century. But as historians Karen Rader and Victoria Cain reveal in this cogent study, they were part of a broader revolution: the 'New Museum Idea,' which saw 'smell machines' and dynamic models supersede dusty cases. The behind-the-scene struggles between ‘edutainers’ and serious museum researchers were, they show, no less dynamic."

Barbara Kiser | Nature

"In lucid prose that's a real pleasure to read, Rader and Cain’s new book chronicles a revolution in modern American science education and culture. . . . Life on Display simultaneously develops an argument for a 'renegotiation of the relationship between display, research, and education in American museums of nature and science,' and opens up an archive of fascinating (and at times hilarious and moving) stories of members of the museum-going public (some of who gifted dog fleas and dead pets to their local museums), non-human inhabitants of interactive museum displays (including an owl with a penchant for riding in cars and 'trim, up-on-their-toes cockroaches'), and museum professionals who painted, debated, made dioramas, invented 'Exploratoria,' and occasionally wrote limericks. This is a book for anyone interested in American history, museum studies, visual culture, science studies, the history of education, grasshopper surgery, or Jurassic Park (among many, many other fields it contributes to). It’s a wonderfully engaging history."

Carla Nappi | New Books in Science, Technology, and Society

"Rader and Cain utilize a rich, wide-ranging set of institutional records from various natural history/science museums to examine the debates among museum professionals. As such, this is a valuable addition to the institutional record of debates over the mission of museums in democratic society. The prose is well structured, and the authors' chronological approach to framing this narrative makes the argument clear. An excellent addition to the growing literature on museums. Essential."


"Historically expansive and entertaining. . . . Rader and Cain provide rich archival detail to outline the history of scientific exhibitions and the natural history museum's shifting roles."

Brenda Trofanenko, Acadia University | History of Education Quarterly

"Life on Display is an engaging book with appeal for specialists and nonspecialists alike. Illustrations of interactive displays, including the “Transparent Man,” provide graphic evidence that supports the text....An important contribution that shows how American museums responded to changing values in science education, corporate sponsorship, and consumer culture."


“Fast-paced and well written, this pathbreaking account of twentieth-century museums reveals their dramatic transformation from reliance on collections as their defining characteristic to centers of public education and entertainment. Rader and Cain document how well-established major museums—particularly those in New York, Washington, Chicago, and other major cities—were at times exuberantly experimental; ultimately, however, the familiar institutions we know today emerged through rethinking of mission and debates involving scientists, exhibit designers, educators, and communities. With its thorough attention to historical evidence, this engaging volume provokes reflection on important issues that continue to confront museums and the societies they serve.”

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, author of Teaching Children Science

"Incorporating both leading museums and smaller ones from across the US, they offer a century-long social and cultural history that situates the biological exhibits of American museums in relation to changes in the perceived goals of museums, their internal dynamics, and their interactions with trends in American pedagogy, science, and what we might call the political economy of culture across the twentieth century. Rader and Cain’s approach forcefully reminds us that the formation of visual cultures (to use Hentschel’s terms) depends as much on institutional, social, and cultural dynamics as on specific technical stories about visuality."

Annals of Science

“In Life on Display we meet the ‘museum men’ (and they were mainly men) and other staff who struggled variously with questions of the relationship between museum research and display, how to raise funding, and how best to deal with sometimes recalcitrant visitors or overenthusiastic donors (yet another horned toad or dog flea); and also with matters such as into which pose an elephant should be taxidermied or how to cope with the sheer vibrancy of biodiversity. This wonderfully detailed account of the changing world of US museums of natural history and science takes us from miked-up grasshoppers to shrimp ballets, from the transparent woman to the cardiac kitchen—and, of course, from dinosaur skeletons to the animatronic T rex. Like the best of the exhibitions that it describes, Life on Display is based in rich, scholarly research but made thoroughly accessible by its creators’ skill and the sheer interest of what is described—it is definitely not to be missed!”

Sharon Macdonald, University of York

“Museums of nature and science are well served by knowing the twentieth-century development of their sector in cause-and-effect terms. The journey continues. In the pivotal twenty-first century, museums of nature and science are being called upon to illuminate the interdependency between Earth and human affairs. This timely book provides a widely referenced baseline to inform the ongoing innovation of these institutions towards their optimal states of external relevance and internal sustainability.”

Emlyn Koster, Director, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

"Wonderfully researched....We can read Life on Display as an excellent example of history drawn from careful work in institutional archives, but the book is also a model of ways to move across scales and connect detailed archival work to larger political, cultural, and economic narratives."

Journal of American History

“For anyone who has enjoyed a trip to a science museum—and who hasn’t?!—Rader and Cain provide a fascinating backstage tour of these institutions. What they discover is that across the twentieth century the drama that has gone on behind the scenes is just as interesting as the exhibits we all come to see. Far from being dusty, static places, museums that put ‘life on display’ are dynamic and contentious in ways the public never sees.”

Steven Conn, Ohio State University

“Gracefully written and deeply researched, Life on Display documents the social and intellectual forces that remodeled American natural history museums during the twentieth century, changing science-driven exhibition halls into centers for mass diversion. Rader and Cain have created a must-read for scholars of popularization of science and for anyone with an interest in science museums today.”

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, author of Science on American Television

“The book is a significant addition to the existing literature, which generally focuses on the unique contributions of individual museums or a handful of major institutions. The breadth and insight of this book should make it a core work in museum studies for years to come.”

Daniel Goldstein, Shields Library, University of California, Davis | Winterthur Portfolio

"Within a well-researched and meticulously referenced book, Rader and Cain chronicle how natural history museums, science and industry centers, and science museums evolved within the twentieth century. Inside this interesting history of informal life displays, the book reveals how museums reflect the social and cultural values of their times, and often align with popular pedagogical techniques and educational practices. . . . Life on Display not only documents a rich history of biological display, but also details a progression of scientific and educational practices. . . . Indeed, the book not only offers the history of life displays in museums, but also the history of U.S. educational foci and practices of the 1900s."

Science & Education

"Rader and Cain weave all of these [...] threads together into a complex and intriguing tapestry. Readers of Life on Display learn how changes in exhibition style, informal education, the museum’s role as social advocate, and the tensions between public history and academic study have molded some of the most venerable museums in theUnited States." 

Joyce Bedi

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Mission of Display

1 “A Vision of the Future”: The New Museum Idea and Display Reform, 1890–1915
2 The Drama of the Diorama, 1910–1935
3 Displays in Motion: Experimentation and Stagnation in Exhibition, 1925–1940
4 Diversifying Displays, Diverging Museums: Postwar Life Science Education, 1941–1956
5 “An Investment in the Future of America”: Competing Pedgogies in Post-Sputnik Museums, 1957–1969
6 The Exploratorium Effect: Redefining Relevance and Interactive Display, 1969–1980
7 From Diversity to Standardization: Edutainment and Engagement in Museums at the End of the Century, 1976–2005

Bibliographic Essay on Sources


History of Education Society: History of Education Society Outstanding Book Award

Media Ecology Association: Lewis Mumford Award, Ecology of Technics

AERA Division F: New Scholar's Book Award

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