"Art with a Purpose"
Pennsylvania's Museum Extension Project, 1935–1943
A 1937 model of Independence Hall, one of twenty-six hundred created during Pennsylvania’s State-Wide Museum Extension Project and now in the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
Like other relief programs launched during the Great Depression under the aegis of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the goal of federal arts programs of the 1930s was two-fold: to rescue unemployed Americans from poverty and to produce something of public benefit. One of the unintended byproducts was controversy. In 1937, the Federal Art and Theatre Project unintentionally made newspaper headlines—but usually for the wrong reasons. John Houseman’s production of The Cradle Will Rock, a musical written by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles, snared controversy for the Federal Theater Project in New York when authorities shut down the folk opera on the eve of its debut for its perceived subversive message. (The conflict is the subject of a 1999 motion picture Cradle Will Rock, directed by Tim Robbins.) Controversies engulfed the Federal Art Program, which employed a number of muralists strongly influenced by the social realism and politics of Mexican-born artist Diego Rivera, a communist. For critics of Roosevelt and his administration, federal arts programs presented convenient targets.
Click here to access a PDF file of Pennsylvania Heritage's feature article (Spring 2008) on the Museum Extension Project.
Thousands of objects and hand-colored plates produced by the Museum Extension Project (MEP) can be found in the collections of museums, historical societies, universities, and individuals throughout the country. Pennsylvania has several repositories where MEP collections are available for public viewing.
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania , Cumberland County , at www.ship.edu , has an outstanding collection of MEP models, plaques, and miniatures, examples of which are on view at the university’s Lehman Library and the Franklin Science Center . There’s also a virtual exhibit of models online at http://library.ship.edu/Archives_
SpecialCollections/WPA/index.htm. The nearby Shippensburg Historical Society has installed an extensive exhibition of MEP artifacts. The society’s Steward House Museum offers limited hours—on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.—but the society will accommodate individuals who wish to make an appointment to visit during other hours. The Web address is www.shippensburghistory.org .
In Lewistown, the Mifflin County Historical Society , upon reopening on May 18, will exhibit its collection of MEP Native American dioramas. In addition, the society’s McCoy House Museum displays MEP models of the Conrad Weiser Homestead, the Nixon Tavern, Fayette County , a Topsfield, Massachusetts , farm house, General George Washington’s Headquarters, an Eskimo igloo, an Iroquois longhouse, a Western-style teepee, the Betsy Ross House, a Byzantine house, Constantinople , and the Jennie Wade House, Gettysburg , Adams County , among others. Open during limited hours, the society’s Web address is www.rootsweb.com/~pamchs .
Atop a scenic hill near Airville, York County , about twenty miles southeast of York along the Susquehanna River , is the Indian Steps Museum . Built by John E. Vandersloot between 1908 and 1912, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Vandersloot excavated Indian artifacts found on his land. Neighbors added relics from their properties until the collection grew to more than ten thousand objects. Vandersloot transformed his home into a celebration of the Native Americans who once occupied the region. Named for steps carved into the rocks now submerged below the river, the museum includes a collection of MEP Native American dioramas. The museum is open from mid-April to mid-October. Visit www.indiansteps.org on the Web for information.
From November 22, 2008 , through May 17, 2009 , The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg will exhibit selections from its MEP collection. The display will be part of a larger exhibition celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New Deal, “A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania ’s New Deal Post office Murals.” The exhibition will highlight post office murals created during the New Deal (which will be featured in the Summer 2008 edition). Information is available on the Web at www.statemuseumpa.org .
Several other institutions hold extensive collections of MEP objects, art, and related documents available to researchers. These include the Pennsylvania State Archives , Harrisburg , at www.phmc.state.pa.us ; the Special Collections Library of California University of Pennsylvania, California , Washington County , at www.cup.edu ; and the Paterno Library of Pennsylvania State University , University Park , Centre County , at cat.libraries.psu.edu.
Curiously, the most prolific New Deal arts program, measured in terms of sheer output, generated neither celebrity nor controversy and perhaps for that reason remains the least well known. Between 1935 and 1943, the Museum Extension Project (MEP) turned out millions of pieces of “visual culture”—everything from colored illustrations, scale models, and dioramas to specimen casts and marionettes— and placed them in the hands of the nation’s schoolchildren. Pennsylvania’s MEP was the first in the nation and the model for other states. By one estimate, it generated nearly a quarter of the project’s national output.
Unlike the highly publicized Federal Project Number One projects in art, theater, writing, music, and historical records surveys, the Museum Extension Project emerged out of the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, a unit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) charged with developing relief programs for women and whitecollar workers. Roosevelt and his advisors reasoned, correctly, that the hard times of the Great Depression respected no occupation; systemic unemployment affected clerks and the college-educated just as much as it did coal miners and high school dropouts. Originally assigned to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the division was transferred to the WPA in 1935 and enjoyed the strong backing of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a highly vocal and eminently articulate supporter of both women and the arts.
Simply stated, the MEP’s objective was to “prepare historical and educational objects, charts, models, and exhibits for use as visual aids to education” hoping to “extend and increase the educational advantages of museums to public schools.” The terse project description belied the program’s enormous impact on American public education—one writer believed it was nothing short of an “educational renaissance.” To appreciate the project’s ramifications, it is important to recognize just how visually sparse most public schoolrooms were in the 1930s. Aside from the standard-issue blackboard, instructors had few resources at their disposal to enliven and extend the textbook. By the early 1920s, progressive educators were beginning to promote the use of motion pictures, lantern slides, and even traditional museum exhibitry, such as dioramas, scale models, natural history specimens, and other forms of what educators described as “realia.” When thoughtfully integrated into daily lesson plans, such material could help teachers “visualize the curriculum” for their students.
Miniatures of early nineteenth-century steam engines.
Visual education represented a new and exciting frontier then, in much the same way that digital education does today. The problem was securing the “proper materials” and getting them into classrooms. “The commercial concerns are not disposed to devote themselves to the preparation of high grade pictures,” one educator complained. Access to existing sources of visual material—the rich collections amassed by public museums and libraries—was also restricted by geography. School children in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia could turn to grand public institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Free Library of Philadelphia. For most school districts in the vast swath of Pennsylvania, field trips to faraway museums were not an option. To its credit, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction, forerunner of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, tried to make visual resources available to all. The department had made the State Museum’s vast collection of lantern slides available for loan to public schools across the Commonwealth as early as 1907.
That experience may have been instrumental in bringing the program to Pennsylvania. In 1935, WPA officials tapped fifty-eight-year-old Martha Cox Colt of Harrisburg, an artist and educator, who had been affiliated with the Harrisburg School of Art and the Central Pennsylvania Art School, to launch Pennsylvania’s program. It would be the first statewide program in the country, and as such, others would be watching closely. Colt was given a small staff and office space on North Cameron Street, several blocks from the State Capitol, and put to work under the administrative oversight of the state’s Division of Women’s and Professional Projects. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction became the program’s official statewide sponsor. Over the following five years, until the sponsorship was transferred to the Pennsylvania State College (now University) in 1940, state education department officials played critical roles in determining the project’s direction and scope of work.
Although the need was well established, in the beginning there was no consensus about exactly what the project should produce, or how. There was an expectation that the new program should produce materials that would support the general curriculum. What Pennsylvania’s schoolteachers taught and, therefore, what they needed to help them teach, varied from one school district to the next. To assist federal and state officials in their task, Colt was authorized to form a state advisory board. Bureaucrats from the WPA and Department of Public Instruction (important among them, the director of school curriculum and elementary education) comprised most of the board. Representatives of both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia school boards also served, as did, over time, officials from later project co-sponsors, including the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC), forerunner of the present-day Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). At least initially, the project chose to cast a wide net: it would produce “authentic and comparatively complete graphic presentation of the human race’s evolutionary efforts to house and clothe itself.” As a corollary, the project would also create materials that could be used in elementary schools to teach proper hygiene, diet and nutrition, and safety, primarily through scripted marionette plays.
To describe the program’s offerings as broad would have been an understatement. A cursory review of surviving catalogs reveals a plethora of two- and three-dimensional materials, among them scale-models of historic buildings, color costume plates showing clothing styles from various epochs, fish plaques of species native to Pennsylvania, and even puppets with faces shaped like teeth and toothbrushes. Over time, and presumably based on input from public school teachers and administrators, the project began offering more focused sub-series within the larger umbrella of food, clothing, and shelter from time immemorial to present. One series, for instance, was intended to showcase, in exacting miniature detail, technological innovations in transportation. Among the products offered in this series was a scale-model of Pennsylvania inventor John Fitch’s famous steamboat, which made its trial run on the Delaware River in August 1787.
Although administered in Harrisburg, most of the work occurred outside of the state capital. The Commonwealth established seven workshops in all: four in the southeastern corner, two in the central section, and one in the western half. By scattering work units, MEP administrators hoped to broaden opportunities for employment and facilitate distribution of the educational products. Schoolteachers were encouraged to review catalogs and send their orders to Harrisburg, but pick up materials at the units where they had been produced.
Miniature dioramas brought history to the classroom in ways otherwise impossible during the Great Depression.
While some overlap existed, each work unit developed its own product line, likely based on the skills and resources available in any given location. Philadelphia (Unit 51) produced most of the Indian dioramas and fish plaques, while Lancaster (Unit 36) turned out “miniature colonial household and kitchen furniture models” and “woven textile samplers,” original examples of which could be collected in the region’s Amish community. Perhaps owing to resources at both the Carnegie Museum and local universities, Unit 2 in Pittsburgh produced most of the architectural and industrial scale models, many of the color plates, and all of the marionettes, puppets, and shows.
Artists, sculptors, and educators were employed extensively but not exclusively. The project required duplicators as well as creators, since the materials—drawings, dioramas, and scale models—needed to be produced in quantities sufficient to meet anticipated demand. The sheer range of catalog items, from color plates to maps to dioramas and specimens, and subject matter, mostly history but also science and decorative arts, required a commensurate breadth of talents at every skill level. That meant recruiting clerks and stenographers as well as architects, librarians, writers, and biologists; mold pourers and plasterers; skilled electricians and carpenters; and a platoon of painters, seamstresses, tinters, graphic artists, and photographers. Regardless of trade or profession, the work demanded dedication and flexibility. “Craftsmanship and book knowledge are not sufficient for a job of this kind,” one project administrator opined. “It requires a blending of the critical preferences of the perfectionist with those of the skilled technician; singleness of purpose, energy and a large percentage of the quality known as ‘horse sense.’”
As they were often an amalgam of research center, art studio, and assembly plant, MEP production units likely represented the most occupationally diverse workshops in the entire WPA. The division of labor was more artisanal than industrial; materials were generated in large volume—and nearly all of it by hand. Skilled craftsmen were responsible for “originating, designing and executing the original models” (or prints) for duplication. In turn, an army of closely supervised unskilled workers were trained to complete the various steps necessary for replication. In Pittsburgh, a group of young workers, presumably unskilled, were trained to hand color the drawings generated from plates designed by professional artists. The unit reported that these workers had colored four thousand prints in one month alone. Another set of workers was trained to cast molds as well as apply and paint plaster after professional architects and sculptors had developed the archetype.
Pittsburgh’s was the only MEP shop in western Pennsylvania, but it was by far the largest and most prolific. Unit 2, as it became known in MEP taxonomy, employed about eight hundred workers, formally organized into five discreet but interdependent departments: Architecture and Research, Art and Photography, Marionette and Music, Sculpturing and Casting, and Model Making. Local sculptor William Luther McDermott supervised the day-to-day operations, and worked closely with both Colt and officials of Pittsburgh’s school district, the unit’s local cosponsor, to develop the catalog and fill the orders that poured in from schools across the Commonwealth. In its role as a project cosponsor, the board of education supplied materials, buildings, and technical supervision.
It took several months for the unit to secure a firm footing. Finding a place to work initially proved to be problematic. The marionette department, charged with creating puppets and producing original scripts, was temporarily housed in a vacated school building. Meanwhile, the rest of the project personnel were located ten miles away in the “bowels of the Sculpture Department at Carnegie Tech.” Eventually, Pittsburgh’s school board managed to secure a five-story building at 3400 Forbes Avenue in the city’s Oakland section for the consolidation of the project’s operations. This location proved optimum—it was literally steps away from the vast collections of the Carnegie Museum and resources at the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).
Costume plates helped teach students about Native Americas, including tribes indigenous to Pennsylvania such as the Erie (Iroquois), the Conoy (Algonquin), and the Allegheny (Lenape).
During the project’s first few tenuous months, workers remained upbeat and astonishingly productive. By April 1936, McDermott reported that the group at the sculpture department was halfway to completion on its first set of costume plates and had sent them to Harrisburg for approval. Development on the raised relief maps was proceeding apace. In the research department, fifty-five employees feverishly labored on lists of topics that included “Natural History, Shelter, Costumes, Industry, Food, Special Adjustment, Geology, Geography, Forestry, Highways, Parks and Natural Resources.” The marionette staff had completed half the puppets and drafted original scripts for three safety plays and one dental health production. Moreover, “the magic brush of employment painted happy faces.”
The project was beginning to attract attention. In April, the Pittsburgh Press lauded the museum unit for its outstanding work in several areas, including the “first accurate relief maps of Pennsylvania,” which were slated to include “painted reproductions of geological strata.” The newspaper also praised the work of the marionette department, headed by Jean Gros, nationally known in the marionette field. Gros’s department was working on a play intended to teach children about health foods, noting “one group of marionettes will have vegetables and eggs for faces.” In time, the department would generate scripts with more of a Pennsylvania inflection, such as The Story of Anthracite.
Another newspaper story published that spring, headlined “WPA Putting History into Color for Pupils,” reported “brushes are flying, ink splashing” as model makers put the finishing touches on the “history of the home” series. One group of workers, under the direction of artist Samuel Filner, was busy with colored plates and dioramas corresponding to “the various Indian tribes which inhabited Pennsylvania.” The project research department had identified eighty-one Native American village sites. “The costumes, religious ceremonies, weapons and domestic implements of these various tribes are being studied . . . and will, in turn, be illustrated.” Another project employee, also a Pittsburgh artist, was completing a series of plates illustrating the costume of a typical Pennsylvania Amish family. (“He was forced to restrain his natural impulse to use vivid color . . . the costume research committee held him down to actualities.”)
Even the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, part of William Randolph Hearst’s vast network of influential metropolitan newspapers and popular magazines, which by 1936 had little good to say about either Roosevelt or his New Deal, gushed with admiration. “From past experience one views art projects askance. The artist paints, the government pays, and what becomes of the painting? Nobody knows.” By contrast, the newspaper reported, “this Museum Extension Project is not handicapped by a hazy conception of what is to be done. It is well organized, there is actual demand for the work produced, and a genuine interest on the part of the workers to produce work that is both skilled and authentic.” This was “art with a purpose” with which the enthusiastic reporter was “thoroughly impressed” and “heartily in favor of.” Thanks to this program, “children in public schools will not have to rely upon the dull black and white print in text books to call up visions of past history.”
During the summer of 1937, the project’s reputation for authenticity and accuracy may have helped it land its most ambitious and potentially rewarding project to date: an order for twentysix hundred scale-model replicas of Independence Hall to mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the 1787 ratification of the United States Constitution. The Constitution’s sesquicentennial was a national event, and given Philadelphia’s central role, both city and state officials hoped to capitalize on it as much as possible. They hoped the MEP could be counted on to produce a historically accurate model that would be reproduced in sufficient quantities for every school and local historical society in the Commonwealth—and in time for the official commemoration in September.
In early July, the Pittsburgh unit dispatched a team of researchers to Philadelphia to document Independence Hall through photographs and measured drawings. Once the actual model was completed in wood, sculptors poured moulds from which literally hundreds of plaster replicas would be cast, painted, and then assembled. As the replicas— each cast in ten separate sections— rolled off the assembly line, another group of workers set to work on a short play, A Modern Newsboy at the Constitution Convention. Copies of the play were to be distributed with the models. The Pennsylvania Historical Commission, brought in as a project cosponsor, provided technical assistance and helped defray the costs of materials, printing, and shipping. By all accounts, it was a massive, time-critical undertaking and likely one of the largest public history initiatives in the country. Nevertheless, the Pittsburgh unit succeeded, and by September 4, all twenty-six hundred models had been shipped.
Puppeteers’ handbooks included scripts with educational themes.
The Independence Hall model project offered MEP administrators a chance to move the program in a different direction by catering to a new co-sponsor. In September, an assistant supervisor at the Pittsburgh unit suggested the MEP align more of its program with those of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. “As we all know the Commission is intensively interested in famous historical forts of the state. We could make originals of them, all done in 1/16” scale, then cast in plaster, and paint them to resemble the original. We could also cast famous battlefield sites, including French and Indian, Revolutionary and Civil War sites.” Even the costume section could be easily recalibrated to Pennsylvania-specific topics by extending “our Indian costume series a great deal, showing perhaps their religious rituals and war regalia in color.” Alas, though, the marionette department would have to go. “I hardly believe that the historical commission with their proposed program would be interested in that department.” The puppet makers occupied two floors and their wares, “which move very slowly,” crowded storage areas.
Whether or not the proposal was formally accepted, a series of scale-model buildings was subsequently produced; the list of models included many, such as the Daniel Boone Homestead and the Conrad Weiser Homestead, both in Berks County, and Ephrata Cloister, in Lancaster County, which subsequently became popular attractions along the Pennsylvania Trails of HistoryTM, administered by the PHMC. The budding relationship with the PHC may have been responsible for opening a new front in the programmatic mission of the MEP.
Beginning in 1939, project personnel were deployed to various state historical properties for a category of work described as “museum assistance.” Later that year, state administrator Martha Colt dispatched Margaret Lindsay to supervise artifact cataloging and restoration work at Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Beaver County, also a PHMC historic site. The project began considering the development of regional children’s museums as yet another way to meet the surging demand for its educational materials.
Pennsylvania’s program had a good head of steam for the first national exhibit of MEP work in Washington, MEP staff measured to scale the actual Philadelphia landmark before casting twenty-six hundred plaster-of-Paris models of Independence Hall (left). Women were largely employed in the program. The front view of The State Museum’s model is pictured on page 14. Both sides are impeccably detailed. D.C., during the summer of 1939. The Keystone State’s project workers had by this time churned out four and a half-million items, including “dioramas, pictures, slides, films, puppets and models illustrating subjects as varied as dwellings of mankind, historical personages, transportation, archeological discoveries and scientific principles.” Although the exhibit drew from projects throughout the nation, the Commonwealth’s program was selected to illustrate “the scope of a State-wide museum project” and as a consequence “filled a large niche” in the exhibit. A New York Times reviewer marveled at one of the architectural models produced by the Pennsylvania MEP. “With dimensions in inches, the models have minute detail sufficiently realistic to make it easy for a child to imagine himself walking up and knocking at the door,” wrote the reporter. One could easily understand why teachers clamored for them.
Based on demand alone, the MEP may have continued on indefinitely. In 1940, the project issued its third catalog, but during the following year, with World War II looming on the horizon, government officials redirected Pennsylvania’s MEP to defense training. The exigencies of war opened a unique niche for the MEP; not many other branches of government, including the armed forces, had comparable experience in the business of modelmaking. “The models shown are unlike anything else obtainable for defense training purposes,” one reporter noted. When Penn State found itself without enough aircraft to train civilian pilots, it commissioned the MEP to create scale models “small enough to get into the classroom” and yet detailed enough to accurately show structural and operational features. During 1941, project workers turned out 23 airplane models, 21 radial airplane engines, 38 sets of mechanical drawing models, 92 “time and motion study jigs,” and more than 14,000 defense posters destined for immediate use in defense training centers throughout the Commonwealth. Museum extension workers became so expert at producing the scale models that many found subsequent employment with the defense supplier making the real version.
Historic sites administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, such as Lancaster County’s Ephrata Cloister were replicated by the MEP.
By 1942, the MEP, like the rest of the WPA, was grinding to a halt. Perhaps more so than other programs, the mission of the MEP endured, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of pieces it managed to place in schools and other publicly supported institutions. Over time, many of the project’s materials were displaced by more modern formats of audio-visual material. However, examples of the MEP’s work continue to be preserved by museums, libraries, historical organizations, and cultural institutions, both near and far. One of the most comprehensive collections of Pennsylvania material is housed in the main branch of the Broward County Library in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The core of the collection was formed years ago by a benefactor who had stumbled across a large grouping at an antiquarian bookstore in Pittsburgh—and, interestingly enough, not far from the site of the MEP production unit in the city’s Oakland section. California University of Pennsylvania and the Shippensburg Historical Society also both maintain large collections. Untold thousands more pieces are now in the hands of private collectors, who seek out the scale models in particular as examples of whimsical craftwork and pieces of history in their own right. But within the context of the New Deal’s legacy and Pennsylvania’s contributions to it, the MEP’s significance extends beyond the sum of the parts. Even to the most trenchant critics of governmentsponsored relief, it represented— and remains—a uniquely successful example of “art with a purpose.”
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