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Victoria Cain Publishes New Book

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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. History professor Victoria E. M. Cain and her co-author, Karen A. Rader, 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.

Cain and Rader 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 can be purchased here.



“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, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 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)

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Published On: December 10, 2014