Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A temple had given up its treasure – ornately carved columns infused with supernatural beliefs – to the man with an imposing air and an eye for danger. He tells the tale: “Then we found ourselves with the column in the moonlight. We knew we must get it away without loss of time. The snoring continued, and the dogs were quiet, but at any moment they might raise an alarm. I cannot tell how it was accomplished, but I recall we let the column slide from the top of the arroya (a water­course such as a stream in an arid region) so that its impetus carried it a long way to our camp, where, protected by the blue tigers and yellow rattle­snakes, we slept with it until long past our usual hour. On the following night, helped by a mercenary, a big Navajo teamster, who had neither fears nor scruples, we secured the remaining columns and loaded them all on his heavy wagon for an early start to the railroad.”


A scene from an ambi­tious Hollywood blockbuster? No, it is a very real episode of the celebrated career of Ste­wart Culin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and later the Brooklyn Museum. Bold adventurer, writer and museum man, Culin made headlines with his discoveries, but his quieter, enduring leg­acy was what he contributed to the appreciation of ethnic cultures through the careful study and sensitive display of their objects. A contemporary of Culin, George A. Dorsey of Chicago’s Field Museum, sum­marized his peer’s unorthodox practices: “When Culin leaves for the ‘field’ – he is now in Japan – he takes car fare, a lead pencil, a set of ideas and a smile. He comes back with the same smile, more ideas and many packing cases. These he soon transforms into sweet, attractive exhibition halls where one may breathe the very air of Arizona, or Califor­nia, or Alaska, or Japan, as the country may be which has yielded up its treasures to this museum magician.”

Stewart Culin was born in Philadelphia in 1858. He grad­uated from Nazareth Hall and, at the age of seventeen, entered his father’s merchant business in Philadelphia. He conducted business with Chi­nese immigrants, and learned their language. Reading in the early studies of anthropology and folklore, he recorded the distinctive customs of the Chi­nese in the city. He collected their artifacts and objects, par­ticularly those having to do with religion and gaming. With the merchant’s care for detail and accurate record­-keeping, he expanded his col­lections and his interests to cover the entire Orient. He joined and later became secre­tary of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Phila­delphia. In 1887, Culin addressed the society and published papers describing the religious ceremonies and social life of the Chinese in America.

As a member of the society, he was influenced by Daniel Brinton, who attracted international acclaim for his prolific writings in archaeol­ogy, linguistics, mythology and religion. Brinton enjoyed the distinction of becoming the first university professor of anthropology in the United States. He published Culin’s article on medical practices of the Chinese in 1887 and encouraged Culin to pursue his studies. Culin’s activities attracted the notice of the Philadelphia Inquirer two years later: “The friend of all the persecuted Chinamen in Phila­delphia is Mr. Stewart Culin, who has rooms on S. Tenth Street and who is also in business downtown. Mr. Culin is one of the few Americans who have mastered the jaw-break­ing elements of the celestial language, and being able to converse with the Chinamen in their native tongue, is appealed to whenever the colonists get into trouble. Mr. Culin’s researches in this line have been presented during his business hours, more from a love of the subject than from any desire for notoriety or gain. He is still a young man of studious habits with the prospect of a brilliant future before him.”

Culin’s friend Brinton envi­sioned a museum at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania which would undertake the collec­tion, display and study of cul­tural objects. Plans went ahead for the museum in 1889 and Culin left his business to become the first secretary of the Oriental Section in 1890. That same year he publicized his plans for a “folk-lore museum.” Such a museum, he wrote, “would have an extended field, and might embrace a vast number of objects which do not ordinarily come within the domain of the collector, and yet are most valuable as illustrating cus­toms, myths and supersti­tions.” He gave as an example the rabbit’s foot to bring good luck and the potato and the horse chestnut carried to pre­vent rheumatism. They are “often quite interesting in themselves,” he offered, and “if properly arranged and labelled with their special story or signification, would form a vastly entertaining col­lection and a valuable aid in the study to which the Folk­lore Society is devoted.”

The organization to which he referred was the American Folklore Society, founded in 1888. Culin was an original member and became president of the national society. The folklore of interest to these members was found not so much in books as on the lips of the people. As Culin explained, “The collection of American oral traditions should be regarded as a national duty. To gather mate­rials for history, which are indispensable to anthropological record, and which unless recorded, will in a few years have irretrievably perished, appears at least as important as the collation of historical records safely lodged in libraries.” Culin refused to be an armchair scholar; he longed for the field. The museum, he argued, should be a bright, inviting educational institu­tion, and a popular one at that, not a shadowy store­house.

Culin could be outspoken in his criticism of museum collecting practices of his day. “Popular taste in collecting,” he complained, “does not often receive the approval of scientific men, and the ‘curios­ities’ which many people treas­ure, valued often on account of their associations, are little prized by the critical student, who even condemns many of our public museums as mere depositories for bric-a-brac, useless in their present state for scientific or educational purposes.” Addressing high school teachers of art in New York, he explained, “Unlike the chemical laboratory, where a single sniff of the familiar odors stirs new flights of my imagination, museums depress and annoy me. Some­times in unguarded moments I have expressed my feelings, but I have continued on with no other thought than of mak­ing things tell me their story, and then in trying to coax and arrange them to tell this story to the world. Museums, like libraries, have grown up as catch-alls, preserving what has come into their way upon the principle that some day it may be useful. An ideal museum has been defined as a collec­tion of labels illustrated by specimens. Another distin­guished authority spoke of it as a place where people find pegs on which to hang their intellectual concepts.”

What did Culin offer instead? “I should say at once that my ideal museum, above all a museum that is to repre­sent the outcome of human activities, should be a work of art and as such the result of individual effort. … I am re­minded at this moment that we are still within the museum. Let me reward your patience by unlocking some of the cases and putting their contents in your hands. At once you realize that these treasures, recently so remote, so dead it seemed, come again to life. How useful would be a museum where people could touch things, as they now see them.”

Stewart Culin practiced what he preached with a widely publicized exhibition of religious objects of the world at the University of Pennsyl­vania Museum which drew national attention. Largely as a result of the show’s success he was appointed secretary of the American Historical Commis­sion to the World’s Exposition in Madrid in 1892. He rose to the position of director of Archaeology and Paleontology for the University of Pennsyl­vania Museum. He took an exhibit of religious objects to Madrid and received a gold medal. He followed the next year with a display of “folklore objects” such as games, toys and charms at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chi­cago, for which he garnered another gold medal. Visitors marveled at the exhibit of exotic objects he had assem­bled in eye-catching arrange­ments. “Folklore most inti­mately connects this age with the greatest antiquity,” exclaimed The Chicago Record, “and of folklore no branch so directly informs us of our relation to the people of most ancient days than the games for the different stages in the history of the world.”

Culin disliked the random assortment of objects crowded together in a cabinet of curiosi­ties. He championed the the­matic arrangement of objects by culture, area and use. His exhibit of religious and gaming objects brought together items with similar functions and showed the viewer similarities between older religious objects and games of the day. Another exhibit of religious objects was arranged by areas of the world, and to astonished view­ers showed similarities of objects and their uses around the world. To enhance the attractiveness of museum exhibits, often thought of as dusty storage areas for egg-headed snobs, Culin insisted on removing objects from glare-riddled cases and spot­lighting them. He added spaces between objects, pro­vided realistic backgrounds to show the “natural habitats” of the objects and varied the position of objects on walls and in cases to avoid monot­ony. Culin added to the educa­tional use of objects by prepar­ing extensive catalogues, typically extending two or three hundred pages, with illustrations of, and compara­tive notes on, each object.

Turning from his work on the exhibits, Culin found the real attraction at the Chicago Exposition to be the gathering of cultures on the Midway Plaisance. One could find Turks, Arabs, Syrians, Arme­nians, Egyptians, Kabyles, Soudanese, Chinese, Japa­nese, Persians, Samoans and American Indian tribes living in reconstructed native settle­ments. Here was a golden opportunity, he thought. He wrote, “A historiographer should be one of the first and most important officials appointed for the next interna­tional exhibition, whose duty shall be to record, not acres of floor space nor millions of francs or dollars, but to keep an account of the physical traits, the customs and leg­ends, of the visitors from remote lands, than which no more important and lasting result could be afforded to the student of anthropological sci­ence.”

Another gold medal for an exhibition of games followed at the Cotton States and Interna­tional Exposition at Atlanta in 1895. The exhibit was accom­panied by the most extensive catalogue of its time, Chess and Playing Cards, which continues to be used to the present as a reference. Published by the Smithsonian Institution, the catalogue followed two publi­cations, Chinese Games with Dice and Dominoes (1893) and Korean Games (1895). In 1896, Culin authored Mancala, The National Game of Africa and became an internationally rec­ognized scholar of games in the world. With his close ties to the Smithsonian Institution, Culin befriended renowned ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing of the Bureau of American Ethnology in Wash­ington, D.C. Cushing told him of similarities among games of American Indians he was investigating and games of the Orient that Culin reported. The two planned an ambitious work which would systemati­cally catalogue aU known American Indian objects and their foreign counterparts.

Culin embarked on lengthy trips to Europe to study the collections of renowned ethno­logical and art museums and dispatched reports which were printed in the Philadelphia newspapers. He filled the newspapers with astounding accounts of marvelous treas­ures and brilliant displays. Despite the strong headstart of European museums, Culin enthused, American museums could rival and surpass them if the resourcefulness given to building American industry was applied to museum work. He assembled a display of games for the Paris World’s Exposition of 1900 and bewil­dered the Europeans by taking the grand prize for exhibits.

But Culin found it hard to celebrate. He grieved over the deaths of the two greatest influences on his work; friends Frank Cushing and Daniel Brinton had died in 1899. To Culin were left the goals of advancing his men­tors’ studies. He replaced Brin­ton as lecturer in anthropology and continued Cushing’s study of Indian games. In 1900, he left the comforts of his house on Front Street, Philadelphia, to travel with the Wanamaker Expedition into the West’s Indian territory. The first stop was Tama, Iowa, where he visited the Sac and Fox nations. Observing a tribal feast, his eyes turned to the old men sitting on platforms in the long-houses, their medi­cine bags hanging from rafters above them. Culin was moved. “These feeble creatures, with strangely wrinkled faces, expressive of patience and suf­fering and more of life’s experi­ence than falls to all the col­lected multitude of our modern towns,” he wrote, “were once the tribal leaders and are still the repositories of the tribal secrets and tradi­tions. One by one, they will be carried to the little graveyard on the hillside and buried with their precious packs, and all their wealth of curious knowl­edge will be lost to the world forever.” Culin dedicated him­self to recording those tradi­tions and bringing back objects which, in lasting and tangible ways, tell the stories of those men and their culture.

A trip to Cuba followed in 1901. He returned with musi­cal instruments and gaming and religious objects from the forgotten Indian population in the eastern mountains. He investigated in the land of the Pueblos, where his friend Frank Cushing had made his career. Culin’s frequent trips far afield, brazen indepen­dence, and headline grabbing wrought criticism from con­servative rivals in the museum. Previously, the influ­ential Brinton had protected Culin and Culin had allies in the widely-known Henry Chapman Mercer and W. Max Muller at the museum. With them gone, Culin, a man of new ideas and sharp words, became more vulnerable. On January 29, 1903, The Philadel­phia Press reported: “The retirement of Mr. Culin is the outcome of the American sec­tion antagonized those in charge of the other depart­ments. The crisis came when Mr. Culin and his friends put up a new ticket for election in opposition to the old Board of Directors. The Culin forces met with overwhelming defeat and it was evident that their leader’s removal was only a matter of time.” After the forced resignation, con­demned by the American Anthropological Association and the Philadelphia press, the Brooklyn Institute Museum in New York invited Culin to direct its newly cre­ated department of ethnology. The announcement that Culin had accepted the offer sparked headlines in New York such as “Stewart Culin Won by Brook­lyn Institute, Magician who captures Hearts of Savages in the Interest of Ethnology, First Man in His Own Field.” Soon after his appointment, Culin stalked the Southwest for six months where he recorded the mysterious Navajo “fire­dance” and brought back Zuni shrines and crafts. Once again Culin had pushed his museum into the forefront.

In 1907, he published his magnum opus of 846 pages, Games of the North American Indians. It classified and illus­trated almost all American Indian gaming implements in American and European museums and called upon field observation and literature to document and compare the games across cultures. Writing the chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Culin penned, “I might suggest that this is the first serious attempt to compare and study the games of more than one tribe. It is by far the largest collection of data about aboriginal games, whether in the Old World or the New. It is, too, the largest collection of data existing on any particular sub­ject referring to the objective culture of the Indian.” As late as 1980, folklore historian William K. McNeil suggested that Games of the North American Indians “is a study that may never be surpassed as a com­prehensive compilation of data.”

After 1909, Culin made sev­eral trips to Japan, China and India to collect textiles, toys and ceremonial objects. In “The Story of The Painted Cur­tain,” Culin recounted his escapades in 1914 in India where he had chanced upon a legendary secret treasure house. He found there “carved ivory and gilded pachisi pieces with which a king must have played.” Prized possessions of the discovery were seven­teenth century painted cur­tains, twenty-three feet long and eight feet high in brilliant colors, showing English and Portuguese traders with Asians. It excited both the scientific and artistic communities when Culin reported his find. “It was so fragile it crumbled almost at a touch. I pasted it on a wide roll of manilla paper, cut it in seven sections and these in turn I mounted on canvas. Each thread of the cotton was then carefully placed and adjusted by hand, the seven panels requiring the continuous work of a skilled assistant for over a year.”

Reports of valuable finds in exotic places, coupled with some danger and daring, often overshadowed the results of progressive exhibition tech­niques which drew imitation from museums throughout the country. George Dorsey wrote in The American Magazine in 1913: “When one can stand in the Japanese hall of the Brook­lyn Museum and forget one is in Brooklyn – that is art, and true merit, and the genius of Stewart Culin.” Dorsey noted the changes in museums Culin made: “Museums never have enough of money or any­thing, except trustees – and then sometimes too many. Museums also have a ten­dency to be musty and a dis­position to bring on headache. You can prove all this by spending an hour in a Regular Museum; then look over Culin’s work in the Brooklyn Institute Museum.” The Brook­lyn Museum proudly noted that Culin’s department was “already being watched with envious eyes by other muse­ums.”

Culin traveled deep into Eastern Europe in search of peasant textiles and artifacts following World War I. He encouraged art students and designers to examine the les­sons from these textiles and their makers to improve American products. Address­ing the Schools of Fine and Applied Arts at Pratt Institute in New York, he declared, “The traditions of craftsman­ship are not to be learned from books. They are not to be taught orally either in the class room or lecture hall. They are to be acquired in a work-shop and then best if not alone from a master.” The museum could help, he offered. “I would like to have you think of the museum, not as a place of antiquities and relics but as preserving the seed of things which may blossom and fruit again through your efforts.” Then he called upon the “magic” which others noticed in his work: “There is some­thing that seems akin to magic in this mastery of things, in this understanding their lan­guage and this power to make them speak and tell their story.” That magic is “the quality of life to quicken our minds and excite the creative impulse which we designate as art.” Culin imagined that the museum would be valuable as industrialization took com­mand, for the museum pre­served models for design and a magic inspired by faraway creators filled with the com­passion and immediacy of handwork.

Culin still had his detrac­tors. Many complained that he was openly embracing the industrialization which brought the downfall to the cultures he spent so many years investigating. Others believed he expressed a self­-fulfilling prophecy. Claiming that the material would perish if it was not removed to muse­ums, he contributed to the dis­appearance of the objects from use by sweeping collection techniques. Did white Victori­ans have the right to remove objects from native cultures so that they could be displayed as exotic bygones?

The frequent collecting trips Culin went on are a rarity today. They were characteristic of a period in the late nine­teenth and early twentieth centuries when museums, themselves on the rise, partici­pated in what was called “the Age of Enterprise,” by un­precedented exhibiting and adventurous collecting. The rising importance of museums and museum men was a reflection of the growing importance of things and their accumulation. It was a time of dramatic – often traumatic­ – changes, when traditional societies long in place seemed suddenly to give way to fierce industrialization and rampant urbanization. Culin’s displays and their objects told of ways of life becoming increasingly incomprehensible to “modern” Americans. His collecting trips were interpreted more as hunts in the wild as Ameri­cans thought themselves more sophisticated. Culin accumu­lated objects which seemed exotic to the Victorians, but he offered to find order in ways of life of their forebears, to pro­vide comprehension in and of a rapidly changing world. In Culin’s push for “artistic” dis­plays was an agenda for find­ing meaning and depth behind accumulation. Stewart Culin sought purposes and themes for the objects, and indeed, for his age.

Seated in a Paris bistro in 1920, Culin questioned how far the age had actually come. He watched a drunken display of jazz playing and dancing, and entered the scene in his journal: “I have been among the savages, but a display like this I have never seen.” Ever the “modern” scientist, he now felt old-fashioned. Walk­ing through his museum gallery, he wrote, “It has been my habit as an ethnologist devoted to the study of the material culture of mankind to think of the races of antiquity as younger and not older than the people of our own age; to refresh myself with such con­tacts as I have had with their minds to feel myself younger and more vital. I have realized my dreams among savages in whose lives and thoughts I have had glimpses of the dawn of the world. I believe one should be free to choose whether the past be seen as a kind of inferno, diversified by murder and punctuated by crime, or as a joyous period of creative effort as I realize it from things of the past which I have made my friends and enticed into telling me their tales.”

Two years later he died, not unforgotten. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the headline read, “Dr. Culin, Who Tried to Make Museums Attractive, Dies at Age of 71 Years.” He was “famed,” the article said, “for his efforts to make the rather somber museum building, somber within and without, attractive to the ‘common gee­zer’ or ‘the man in the street.'” He “was well known all the way from New York to Peking, China …. It was said of Dr. Culin he was really the pio­neer in the movement to make museums attractive, and that he believed by so doing he would arouse public interest in the study of the past, and help raise funds to unearth buried cities and unlock the ancient historical treasures to the enquiring present-day peoples of the world.” Art Digest added, “Given a free hand in Brooklyn, he had much to do with the changed attitude in American museums that has made them ‘alive’ instead of sepulchers of the past.” Art News offered, “He initiated many of the practices now general in the museum field for he had a genius for instal­lation and a profound convic­tion that museum collections were valuable only as they served the needs of the pub­lic.” The Brooklyn Museum noted that through the objects under his control, he extended the influence of the museum into “design rooms and show windows of manufacturers and retailers all over the length and breadth of the United States.” In Paris, he was hailed for his contribution to modern collection and study methods. The magazine El Palacio noted that “under his direction the Museum attained an interna­tional reputation, not merely as a rich storehouse of ethno­logic material, to which he was annually adding by trips abroad, but also as a factory of ideas … he encouraged in practical ways the use of the Museum material by students, designers and manufacturers, in order that the industrial and artistic life of the country might benefit from it to the full.”

Today his innovations are taken for granted in museum study and display. His name is rarely attached, although his influence, as predicted, lives on. His career illustrates the excitement of an age and the conviction of men who went far afield for museums which arose to interpret what was happening at home.


For Further Reading

Bronner, Simon J. “The Hidden Past of Material Culture Studies in American Folkloristics.” New York Folklore. Vol. 8 (1982) 1-10.

Bronner, Simon J., ed. American Material Culture and Folklore. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Culin, Stewart. Games of the North American Indians. Reprint. New York: Dover Publi­cations, 1975.

Culin, Stewart. Chinese Games With Dice and Dominoes. Reprint. Seattle: Shorey, 1972.

Harris, Neil. “Museums, Mer­chandising, and Popular Taste: the Struggle for Influence.” In Material Culture and the Study of American Life, edited by Ian M. G. Quimbt;. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Hinsley, Curtis M., Jr. Savages and Scientists: The Smithso­nian Institution and the Devel­opment of American Anthro­pology, 1840-1910. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

McNeil, William K. “A History of American Folklore Scholarship Before 1908.” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1980.

Schlereth, Thomas, ed. Material Culture Studies in America. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1982.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Guilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.


Simon J. Bronner received his Ph.D. in folklore and American Studies from Indiana University at Bloomington and serves as an assistant professor at the Pennsyl­vania State University – Capitol Campus in Middletown. He has written Chain Carvers: Old Men Crafting Meaning and has edited American Material Culture and Folklife and American Folk Art: A Guide to Sources. He is editor of two journals, Material Culture and The Folklore Historian, and is president of the Pennsylvania Folklore Society.