"Wherever I put down my foot, a museum springs up": The Legacy of Archer M. Huntington
Archer Milton Huntington was both a romantic and an educator. Though the many institutions he founded were dedicated to very different purposes and themes, they were unified by Huntington's unique philosophy and approach to public education. Huntington loved the dramas of history, and he founded institutions in the hope that they would clearly convey vivid narratives to general audiences. Most of his museums and institutions were meant to preserve and present European art and literature, which he believed embodied the best of civilization.
Huntington focused his collections particularly on Spain; indeed, Huntington's guiding didactic principle may well be explained by contemporary debates about the recent history of Spain. If the innumerable arguments about what had caused Spain's political and economic decline had one common theme, it was the failure of the monarchy and ruling elites to educate the middle class. Huntington heard that message loud and clear. Determined that the United States not repeat Spain's mistake, he focused his collecting, museum buildings and financial backing on pedagogic endeavors.
Each collection included scholarly archives, but Huntington strove to facilitate more than traditional academic research. Huntington hoped learning could be accomplished with beauty, charm and romance. He wrote to his mother: "If I can make a poem of a museum it will be easy to read. I have often said I am not a 'collector,' rather an assembler for a given expression".1 Huntington's collections are shaped to woo and enchant the viewer, to inspire rather to intimidate.
A key strategy was thematic focus. Here the example of Huntington's mother, Arabella Huntington, may have been an influence. Herself an important collector of French art, and the second wife of a collector—Henry E. Huntington—who focused on British art and literature, she taught her son French literature and Enlightenment values. Each of Huntington's institutions concentrates on one field of thought or collecting: a single medium, like numismatics; a single cultural heritage, usually Spanish; or a single topic, like Geography. None of his institutions are large or rambling, unlike many initiated by his peers. Huntington's exhibits told a single visual narrative, with a beginning and an end, supported behind the scenes by archival collections and research.
1 Codding Mitchell, Archer Milton Huntington, Champion of Spain in the United States, 154.