The United States Naval Lyceum, 1833-1889

Steven Lubar 5 years, 2 months ago

Stereoscopic view of the Naval Lyceum

In 1852 the New York Times memorably described the Naval Lyceum as an “olla podrida [a Spanish stew] of queer things pining away its sweetness in the desert air of the Brooklyn Naval Yard.”

It does seem odd that the Navy Yard had a museum. But establishing the Lyceum was one of the first things that Captain Matthew Calbraith Perry did when he was named second officer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1833. Perry and his reform-minded colleagues thought that a library and museum were one way to make a better Navy. They explained their purpose:

We, the Officers of the Navy and Marine Corps, in order to promote the diffusion of useful knowledge,- to foster a spirit of harmony and a community of interest in the service, and to cement the links which unite us as professional brethren, have formed ourselves into a Society, to be denominated “The United States Naval Lyceum.”

The Lyceum became the mail forwarder for the Navy. It sponsored lectures on naval topics. It published the Naval Magazine, a bimonthly publication that ran articles not only on naval topics but also scientific findings, travel narratives, and short stories. It encouraged science.

The Lyceum's journal Frontispiece of the, The Naval Magazine, showed Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the motto: "Tam Minerva quam Marte" ("For science as well as for war.")

The frontispiece of the lyceum's journal, The Naval Magazine, showed Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and the motto: "Tam Minervâ quam Marte" ("For science as well as for war.")

But most importantly, the Lyceum built a library and museum. An 1839 visitor was impressed:

I had an opportunity to examine the rooms attached to the Naval Lyceum, and although I was prepared for something neat and tasteful, I had formed no adequate conception of the extent of beauty of their collection. Handsome cabinets of shells and minerals, elegantly arranged; many rare birds, in a perfect state of preservation, with a large and valuable collection of natural and artificial curiosities from every quarter of the globe, are among the first objects, on entering, which salute the eye. The walls are adorned with choice paintings; among them are portraits of distinguished Americans, from the pencils of eminent artists. There are to be seen beautiful models of ships, neatly arranged, displaying select specimens of naval architecture. There is also a valuable and extensive library, embracing the choicest works, literary and scientific. The reading table is well supplied with interesting periodicals, foreign and domestic, as well as daily newspapers.

The only interior view of the Navel Lyceum appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1857

Books had particular meaning to naval officers. A library, one Lyceum member wrote, will “polish and adorn the mind, and render us better able to sustain ourselves in those refined circles of society in which, both at home and abroad, we are, by the peculiar character and standing of our profession, entitled to mix.” In 1835 the library had 1134 volumes; in 1855, 5000. The library also had an extensive array of contemporary periodicals. (These were the cause of some controversy: in 1836, the Lyceum banned abolitionist publications from the reading room to stop political debates.) 

As important as the library was the museum. The curators reported that “Our Cabinet has been enriched by valuable contributions from our brother officers abroad ... almost every ship ... has brought us a token of remembrance, either in minerals, shells, animals or antiques.”They thanked the “Citizens of New York and Brooklyn [who] liberally contributed to the formation of its Library and Cabinets, by donations of Books, Maps, Charts, Minerals, Curiosities, &c.”

The first year’s collecting included “shells, insects, ancient vases, lamps and ‘marbles,’ fish, birds, animal skins, mineralogical specimens, and other ‘natural Curiosities.’” Also: 508 specimens of coins and medallions; several oil paintings, engravings drafts, and “autographs of great variety.” 

In 1855 the Lyceum published an “Iconographic Catalogue” of its collections. It starts with a rousing call to the collector:

It is a spirit of patriotism that whispers to the bosom of the adventurous navigator, ‘The relic I see, the wild costume, the savage weapons, would confer pleasure or actual instruction on my countrymen,’ were they placed availably before their eyes, for inspection and study ... the curious relic must be obtained, for AMERICA expects every man to do his duty.

It then categorizes and describes the collections. There are antiquities and objects showing “the contemporary habits of distant Peoples,” the “random” artifacts “which load the shelves of the Lyceum.” These artifacts “commend the improvements of the present day, in the busy yard without ... how marked the contrast, to see, as with one glance of the eye.” 

Many objects convey deep personal meaning. “The face of a Greek sculpture of Hercules  “wears the expression ... of deeply fixed sadness, or serious resolution.” Even the collection of “quite a variety of mummies” teaches a lesson: “everlasting mementoes of arts that are lost, and inspiring lessons for those yet to be gained.” 

The artifacts of natural history (ferns from Jamaica, 273 plants well preserved from Lower Canada, a very pretty collection of corals...) also tell moral lessons. Salamanders are “most worthy of study ... on account of their singular faculties of endurance.” Spiders and insects are noted for their “maternal solicitude” and for the way they organize their society. 

There are also lessons to be learned from the museum’s paintings and sculpture. Looking at the sculpture and painting of George Washington, for example, awakens “a train of thought” that brings forth a range of uplifting, emotional images from Washington’s life. The “Iconographic Catalogue” concludes with a mention of other fine art (300 casts of medallions of ancient heroes and statesmen, 20 medals, 1000 ancient coins “worthy of much better display”), and ship models and cases “replete with the implements of war of savage nations from every part of the world, and many of them show great ingenuity of workmanship, and are formidable.” 

In 1851 Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion presented an engraving of the Lyceum building and a brief description of the collections.

But while the curators of the Lyceum understood it as a scientific and educational institution, with lessons philosophical, emotional, and patriotic, that was not the way that all visitors saw it. More and more, the word “curiosity” appears in descriptions: a “splendid collection of curiosities, and mineralogical and geological cabinets, with numerous other valuable and curious things worthy the inspection of the visitor.” The 1852 New York Times review that called the Lyceum an “olla podrida of queer things” finds the idea of the museum appealing: it is serious; it “contains a great many interesting objects, a few rare specimens, and numerous relics of our glorious past... There’s something to please every one, be he a philosopher, or merely a loafer.” But it is disappointed with the reality, the miscellaneous relics that don’t tell moral stories.

During the Civil War the Lyceum slowed down. It revived in the 1870s, but it had lost its scientific, educational, and moral purpose. It was mostly a tourist attraction, attracting some 10,000 visitors in 1879, and a local museum for Brooklyn. 

In 1889, the Naval Lyceum was evicted from the quarters it had occupied for almost sixty years. Its closing brought forth cries of concern. An “old salt” told the Brooklyn Eagle that “when they ... carted the rare old trophies won by the real old sailors of the good old days of Uncle Sam’s navy to Washington ... it made old Commodore Perry turn over in his grave.” 

But to no avail. Two years later the Lyceum’s “relics, curiosities, and the like” were shipped to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. They meant something different there than they had when they were collected, or when they had been displayed as a growing, active collection before the Civil War, or after the War, as curiosities for tourists. First they were art and science, moral uplift and education; then relics and curiosities, tellers of moral stories; now they are history. Artifacts remain; the story changes.