Happy Birthday, Mr. Dana!
The founding director of the Newark Museum, John Cotton Dana, was born on this date, August 19, in 1856 in Woodstock, Vermont. Educated at Dartmouth College, he moved out west in 1880 and became a miner, a surveyor, a rancher, a lawyer, a journalist, a Unitarian minister (at least for one month), and eventually, at the age of 33, the librarian at the Denver Public Library. About his youth, he once wrote: “As I look back on the ten years that followed graduation…, [I see myself as] a mere child. Only a child could be as irrationally ambitious, as credulous, and as uncomprehending of daily life as I was then… Perhaps nearly all boys have a juvenile period like mine as they approach manhood…”
As a librarian, Dana found his vocation at a thinker, a cultural critic, and an educator, and he devoted the rest of his life to this profession. In his opinion, a good library “supplies the public with recreational reading…; [it provides] books on every profession, art, or handicraft…; [it] helps in social and political education – in training citizens…; [it promotes] culture… [which he defined as] the diffusion of good reading among people in giving tone and character to their intellectual life; [it] is the ever-ready helper of the school-teacher; [and it] aids the work of reading circles and other home-culture organizations…”
Later, following a series of exhibitions in the fine arts, the decorative arts, and the natural sciences at the Newark Public Library, where he was the director from 1902 to 1929, Dana founded the Newark Museum in 1909 as a complement to this educational mission. “A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questionings, – and thus promotes learning.” “The Newark Museum of the future,” he declared, “will make and use collections useful to our manufacturers, housewives, students, importers, and dealers…” Furthermore, “Tomorrow, objects of art will be bought to give pleasure, to make manners seem more important, to promote skill, to exalt handwork, and to increase the zest of life by adding to it new interests…”
Under his tenure, the Newark Museum acquired the George T. Rockwell Collection of Japanese Art Objects (1909); the Edward N. Crane Memorial Collection of Tibetan Art Objects, a group of objects assembled by Dr. Albert L. Shelton (1911); Dr. William S. Disbrow’s natural science specimens (1922); and several paintings and sculptures by living American artists purchased by Mrs. Felix Fuld for the opening of the new museum building (1926). Among the remarkable exhibitions that Dana organized were: Modern German Applied Arts (1912), the first industrial arts exhibition in the United States, an exhibition that traveled to five other cities; two exhibition featuring the work of Childe Hassam (1911) and Max Weber (1913), the first solo exhibitions devoted to contemporary American artists; New Jersey Clay Products (1915), New Jersey Textiles (1916), and Nothing Takes the Place of Leather (1926), three exhibitions highlighting the work of local industries; China: The Land and the People (1923) and Primitive African Art (1928), two exhibitions that expanded the geographic scope of the Museum; and Inexpensive Articles of Good Design (1928 and 1929), about which Dana famously declared, “Beauty has no relation to price, rarity, or age.”
We are proud of the solid foundation that John Cotton Dana firmly established all of those years ago, and we continue to strive to be “a leader in connecting objects and ideas to the needs and wishes of its constituencies” in order “to educate, inspire, and transform individuals of all ages.”
– William A. Peniston, Ph.D.. Librarian
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