Students Question the Role of Cabinets of Curiosities in American History

Most academics never have an opportunity to examine Ben Franklin’s personal annotated copy of the Constitution. But the students in History Teacher Eliza McFeely’s “Cabinets of Curiosities” Intensive Learning class were invited to do just that at the American Philosophical Society (APS) Museum in Philadelphia as part of their studies on natural history museums in the United States.

Museums, originally called cabinets of curiosities, are a subject of particular interest to Dr. McFeely, as her dissertation at New York University was an insider’s guide to the National Museum of American History. She designed “Cabinets of Curiosities” to ask students to look at the evolution of natural history museums and analyze what they represented about how Americans think. Through visiting the American Philosophical Society Museum and Library, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and close readings of advanced texts, the students questioned the motivations of why the United States created museums, how architecture and objects in museums shape a sense of national identity, and the role of museums in a 21st century context. To bring their studies to life, the Upper Schoolers also curated their own pop-up anthropological exhibits, featuring themselves, around campus for a modern-day audience.

“I wanted to put together an Intensive Learning program that was different and appealing for students at the local level,” said Dr. McFeely. “So it was such a surprise when we went to visit the American Philosophical Society Museum and Library, the curators granted us access to handle nine significant documents from the library, like Benjamin Franklin’s copy of the Constitution with his handwritten notes and a letter from Alexander Hamilton to his wife Eliza. Usually you need academic credentials to handle those documents, but we were the first high school class to go through the APS so it was a treat for our high schoolers to examine them up close. As a history teacher, it was just amazing to sense that moment when the kids felt some kind of awe while holding the documents.”

During a group discussion, the students unanimously agreed the experience was impressive, stating that “in class, we read documents in a secondhand way so going to see them in person was pretty awesome” and “we were scared to touch anything at first because we were worried about ripping something by accident, it was cool that we were able to actually hold these important historical artifacts.”

Aside from viewing the texts in the library, the curators also provided the students with a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to curate an exhibit. The Upper Schoolers then wrote their own proposals for a show they would present at the museum.

Before they traveled to New York to tour the American Museum of Natural History, the students read the text “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936” written by Donna Haraway to consider the origins of the museum from a feminist perspective.

“The American Museum of Natural History was constructed in the 1870s to offer a very specific interpretation of the natural and human world to the growing immigrant population,” said Dr. McFeely. “Our tour asked the students to look at the messages embedded in the museum as a whole and to read the museum as a cultural artifact.”

After their visits to both museums and their discussions from throughout the week, the students’ attitude towards museums shifted.

“I signed up for ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ because I wanted to learn something different,” said George Diamond ’18. “I never thought that the history behind museums could be so interesting and this Intensive Learning experience changed my perspective about museums in a positive way.”