Joseph Allen Skinner and the Culture of Collecting in the Gilded Age
I examine the development of the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum through a critical study of Joseph Allen Skinner’s collecting habits and display strategies. I argue that while Skinner follows some Gilded Age collecting trends, he is ultimately a unique collector of his time due to his idiosyncratic display techniques and preference for objects with narrative value. I argue against previous interpretations of the Skinner Museum that mislabel it as a modern “cabinet of curiosities,” and instead offer a more nuanced perspective that contextualizes the Skinner Museum within the Gilded Age and Skinner’s life trajectory. In the first chapter, I compare and contrast the Skinner Museum to other collectors such as J.P. Morgan, Frederick Layton, Henry Ford, and Charles Willson Peale. I explore the historical contexts, which gave rise to these collections, and the ways in which Skinner responded to and ignored these contexts. In the second chapter, I examine the development of the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum. I study Skinner’s personal documents including his diary in order to understand how Skinner positioned himself as a collector, and how he understood his relationship to his objects. I then examine the resulting modes of display in the museum, which offer both a sense of wonder and resonance. Lastly, I discuss my exhibition in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum (April, 2017). This exhibition represents the historical and biographical sectors that gave rise to the Skinner Museum. Using objects from the Museum related to textile production, I explore Skinner’s personal ties to the Silk industry as well as the ways in which industrialization transformed Gilded Age society. This chapter discusses the ways in which the exhibition complicates and compliments the American art gallery’s preexisting themes. A critical study of the Skinner Museum provides an understanding of the diverse set of circumstances that gave rise to Gilded Age collections and museums. My study demystifies the Skinner Museum and its eclectic modes of display, while examining the ways in which modern interpretations fail to capture the dynamics of the museum. Without a proper analysis, the Skinner Museum would remain a cabinet of wonder to visitors, and its original context would be lost. My interpretation reveals the motivations behind the Skinner Museum as well as the competing modes of collecting, which gave rise to a period of unprecedented museum growth in the United States.