"How to Have a Museum with Brains": John Cotton Dana and the Making of a Democratic Culture for America

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John Cotton Dana (1856-1929) should be a household name. He started out as a reform-minded librarian intent on making libraries into engines of education, hence of opportunity, for women, workers and the business community. He took a similar view of art museums. The museum he established in Newark, still the largest in New Jersey, was planned as an alternative to institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dedicated to the display of masterworks.At the Newark Museum, the intrepid Dana showed copies of masterpieces (just as good in his opinion); installed a lending library of art; shared shows with Bamberger's department store; mounted exhibitions of items manufactured in New Jersey; and worked with ethnic groups in Newark to organize exhibitions of native crafts. At one point, he mounted displays of items from five-and-dime stores to prove that "beauty has no price." The genius of the Readymade, Marcel Duchamp, is in Dana's debt. So too are librarians, museum officials and all those concerned with the Progressive legacy in America's ongoing struggle to be a democratic society.

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CAROL DUNCAN is an art historian who has written extensively on the history of museums.

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