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Libraries & Museums

In the 1930s the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) greatly expanded its work in the humanities, moving from classical interests to initiatives that broadened the scope of the humanities program and aspired to reach larger audiences. RF support for libraries and museums provided an important bridge between scholarly and popular audiences.

Strengthening European Libraries

RF continued work that began under the International Education Board (IEB), which had helped to rebuild Europe’s libraries after the devastation of World War I. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris received several grants enabling it to complete its Catalogue Generale and to improve its collection of periodicals, which had suffered during the war years.  

In 1931 Oxford University received an exceptionally large grant of $2.3 million for the expansion of the Bodleian Library (total humanities grants in the period were only about $700,000 per year), perhaps as a way of counter-balancing the Foundation’s support for scientific projects at Cambridge.

Bodleian Library Extension, Oxford (England) 1938

Bodleian Library Extension, Oxford (England) 1938

 In 1929 Frank Aydelotte of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust had written to RF president George Vincent that “you have just done a big thing for science at Cambridge where science predominates, it would be a beautiful balance and fitness of things in your doing a similarly much needed service to the University of Oxford where humanistic studies predominate.”[1] The expanded Bodleian was opened in 1946. The library had been pressed into emergency service during World War II, forcing an interruption in construction. Objects of value were stored in the library’s underground levels, and the building served as a “nerve center” for the British Navy, a job which included use of the university press to print naval codes.[2]

Microphotography for the Masses

New developments in library science were also funded by the humanities program. The RF gave extensive support to the development of microphotography throughout the 1930s. Microphotography, the process of photographing books and documents and producing copies on 16 or 35 millimeter film to be read through enlarging machines, was seen as the best means of preserving important international collections and improving access to them. In making a grant to the University of Chicago in 1937 to set up its own microphotography lab, the RF noted that “[m]icrophotography provides the best present method for preserving copies of the masses of material required by scholars who work with rare books, documents, manuscripts, and newspaper files. It also enables the librarian serving them to make such material accessible.”[3]

Saving the King’s Collection

Microphotography proved to be especially useful during World War II, when the technology was used to preserve historic and irreplaceable items that were threatened with destruction during the bombing campaigns over England. In 1941 Daniel O’Brien of the RF’s Paris office contacted David Stevens regarding the urgent matter of the threatened collections in King’s Library at Windsor Castle. The extensive and valuable collections owned by Great Britain’s royal family were inventoried in a letter from O’Brien to Stevens. Based on information provided by O.F. Morshead, the King’s librarian, among the holdings of the royal collection were 14,000 original drawings, including 900 by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as others by Raphael and Michelangelo; private diaries and letters of George II to George V, including material relating to the American War of Independence; and the diaries and letters of Queen Victoria. Fearing the loss of these treasures to enemy bombing raids, O’Brien noted to Stevens, “Such a loss in many ways could be compared to the loss of some of the great libraries of the world such as the Alexandrian, and others. The hoarding of the many precious documents in the cellars seems to me a totally inadequate measure of protection.”[4] O’Brien went on to recommend two methods of RF support: financing the microfilming of all historical material and the construction of a tunnel to protect the originals.

These plans were partially approved. Noting that microfilming the documents and drawings of the King’s Library would also benefit American scholars, the RF approved plans for immediate microphotography; however, requests to fund the construction of an emergency storage tunnel were denied with John Marshall noting to Stevens that “contribution toward the storage of the Library is not our business. The British ought and perhaps can find funds for that. In fact, a tunnel is now being run into a chalk cliff for the storage of the most valuable national treasures from Windsor and from other national depositories.”[5] The microfilming of the King’s Library remained a top-secret wartime project that protected the King’s anonymity. In 1942, when Stevens inquired on the advisability of mentioning the project in the Foundation’s annual report, he was instructed by O’Brien to describe the project as “[m]icrofilming of historical documents in England for safe keeping” and told to “avoid specific names.”[6]

Advancing Museums

While far more limited in scope than its work with libraries, the Foundation also supported work in improving museums. RF grants first began in 1935, when a Trustee report identified museums as “peculiarly influential” among a public that looked to them for “cultural satisfaction.”[7] The first grant was a sum of $44,000 to the Brooklyn Museum to train promising interns from across the country in topics of museum administration and techniques of display. The interns that participated were expected to go back to their positions or to new museums in order to communicate their knowledge and take on leadership roles in the field. Further grants continued to focus on projects that aimed to improve visitor experience or focus on the public responsibility of museums, including educational outreach.

Brooklyn Museum - interior building views, New York (N.Y.) 1936

Brooklyn Museum - interior building views, New York (N.Y.) 1936

While grants continued throughout the 1930s, Foundation interest remained limited and the appropriations remained small and virtually ceased to exist during the war years. A 1955 summary of RF work in the field calculated that grants between 1934 and 1950 totaled only $302,500.[8] In the 1970s, however, the Foundation established a program of fellowships to train professionals who would incorporate new educational and outreach activities in museums. The training took place in the Dallas Museum of Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Trainees were placed in museum jobs throughout the country.

Museums Revisited

In the mid-1980s RF revisited its commitment to museums. Alberta Arthurs, then director of the arts and humanities program, explained that the renewed interest in museums began when she and her colleagues realized that museums brought the arts and humanities together, “making them unusually opportune targets for a foundation devoted to both.” But the rationale soon grew larger. “Museums play major roles,” wrote Arthurs, “in urban and communal life; they are repositories of history and belief, of artifacts, but also of ideas and ideals. Museums, we realized, are durable agencies for reflecting issues and changes in the society.”[9] RF began to support exhibitions devoted to the work of minority artists and artists from the developing world whose work was little known to Western audiences. Blockbuster exhibitions of the work of African-American, Caribbean and Hispanic artists benefited from RF support. By the mid-1990s the Foundation began to fund projects that sought to promote conversations across cultural boundaries. The Foundation and the museums with which they worked had moved from broader inclusion of groups “to complex considerations of identity, to interaction across communities, as goals for exhibitions and scholarship.”[10]


[1] “Oxford University – Bodleian Library,” Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 1.1, Series 401 R, Box 63, Folder 824.

[2] “The New Bodleian Library Building,” Excerpt from Trustee Bulletin, February 1947, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 401 R, Box 63, Folder 823.

[3] Rockefeller Foundation (RF) Resolution, December 16, 1936, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 216 R, Box 16, Folder 219.

[4] Letter from Daniel O’Brien to David H. Stevens, April 28, 1941, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 401 R, Box 57, Folder 750.

[5] Letter from John Marshall to David H. Stevens, August 19, 1941, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 401 R, Box 57, Folder 750.

[6] Telegram from Daniel O’Brien to David H. Stevens, February 5, 1942, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 401 R, Box 57, Folder 751.

[7] “The Rockefeller Boards and Museums: A Resume of RF and GEB Programs” by John Marshall, December 9, 1955, RG 3, Series 911, Box 5, Folder 44.

[8] “The Rockefeller Boards and Museums: A Resume of RF and GEB Programs” by John Marshall.

[9] Alberta Arthurs, “Making Change: Museums and Public Life,” The Politics of Culture, edited by Gigi Bradford, Michael Gary and Glenn Wallach (New York: The New Press, 2000) 211.

[10] Arthurs, 212.

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