Time Capsule

In case you haven't heard, 2009 is the Year of Science, a grand attempt at increasing public understanding of science and its benefits. You can learn about the plans to celebrate the broad domain of science at the official Web site www.yearofscience2009.org.

Sadly, someone forgot to mention to the planners that there is something called the social and behavioral sciences, in which psychology is a major player. Thus, not a one of the 12 monthly foci involves psychology.

Scientific psychology's battle for recognition dates back to the end of the 19th century when the field first arrived in North America and found itself competing for public acceptance with a host of other "psychologies," such as phrenology, mesmerism, spiritualism and mental healing. Needless to say, experimental psychologists, who were just learning how to apply the scientific method to the questions of mind, were eager to distance themselves from the public psychologies they considered pseudosciences.

One of psychologists' first ventures into informing the public about their new science was a two-room display at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the same fair that gave us the Ferris wheel. The psychology exhibition included apparatus, photos of psychology laboratories and a room for psychological testing, where thousands of fair visitors had their cognitive and motor abilities assessed.

It would be nearly 100 years until the next international display of scientific psychology for the public would take place in Toronto in 1991. The Ontario Science Centre (OSC) opened "Mindworks," a major interactive exhibition on the science and practice of psychology. "Mindworks" was developed by APA in close collaboration with the OSC, with supporting funds from the National Science Foundation and several other public and private agencies. After a one-year engagement at the OSC, the exhibition, by then known as "Psychology: Understanding Ourselves, Understanding Each Other," toured major U.S. science museums until 1997, when it was sold to the Arizona Science Museum.

In the meantime, OSC built a second traveling exhibit for APA for smaller museums. APA toured that exhibit, "Psychology: It's More Than You Think!" until January 2003, when it was donated to the Archives of the History of American Psychology. At every venue, the exhibits played to large crowds. Which raises the question, why is the science that is so absent from the Year of Science also so absent or invisible in science museums? There are museums for almost every subject. A museum for hammers can be found in Haines, Alaska, and one for sewing machines in Arlington, Texas. The British Lawnmower Museum is located in Lancashire, England, the Banana Museum—with a petrified banana and banana phone—is in Altadena, Calif. And the Museum of Bad Art is in Dedham, Mass. Alas, there is no museum for psychology.

But there used to be. The Psychological Museum opened in Chicago in 1937. It was the brainchild of David Pablo Boder, PhD (1886–1961), then a faculty member at the Lewis Institute. Born in Latvia, Boder studied briefly with Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig and Vladimir Bekhterev in St. Petersburg. He arrived in the United States in 1926 and earned his PhD in psychology at Northwestern University.

Boder secured several rooms at the Lewis Institute for his museum, including use of a large hall for his planned lectures and demonstrations. He wrote to all the living APA presidents, asking them to donate materials, including autographed photos of themselves.

Despite Boder's enthusiasm and considerable efforts both to collect materials for the museum and to promote its cause, it never enjoyed much success. Boder hosted several expositions with the museum, notably one in the Golden Dome Building of Garfield Park in 1938 where displays included an oscillograph for voice analysis, a polygraph, a device for measuring fatigue, a special bed from Nathaniel Kleitman's laboratory that measured body movements during sleep and psychological tests such as the Minnesota Rate of Manipulation Test. Yale University's Arnold Gesell gave the keynote speech entitled, "Scientific Approaches to the Study of the Human Mind." His address was a technical one, prepared for what he thought would be an audience of psychologists. An observer, Lewis Ward, described the lecture hall in the hour before Gesell's address. He wrote that the audience consisted of the attendants and "two families, very informally dressed, each with three or four young children. Every few minutes, more families with children arrived and some couples without, but who were obviously ordinary citizens of Chicago and not psychologists. Pretty soon the place was a madhouse with kids racing through the aisles and general disorder the pattern of the evening."

He added that Gesell's address went over like a "lead balloon."

Boder's museum limped along for 20 years, largely as a one-man show. He hosted school groups and business groups, such as a local Chevrolet dealership. During such visits, he'd stand on the auditorium's stage demonstrating various psychological phenomena, such as illusions of movement and reaction time to sounds versus lights, often inviting members of the audience onto the stage as participants. Although the museum existed officially until 1957, it received little attention from Boder after 1946. He moved on to other interests, including some dramatic interviews in 1946 with survivors of the Nazi death camps ("I Did Not Interview the Dead," University of Illinois Press, 1949).

The obscurity of Boder's museum was evidenced by a debate in the 1953 comments section of the American Psychologist in which five psychologists argued for establishing a psychology museum. Not one of the letters indicated any awareness of Boder's museum.

Boder's desire for a place for the preservation of the history of psychology became a reality in 1965 with the establishment of the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. The remnants of Boder's museum are now part of Akron's collection of manuscripts, photographs and apparatus. The archives has undergone incredible growth in the past 40 years, and it is beginning a major development campaign for a new 10,000 square-foot National Museum of Psychology as part of the Center for the History of Psychology. You can view plans for the museum and the center at www3.uakron.edu/ahap.

Ludy T. Benjamin Jr., PhD, is a professor at Texas A&M University


  • Benjamin, L.T., Jr. (1979). David Boder's Psychological Museum and the Exposition of 1938. Psychological Record, 29, 559–565.

  • Boder, D.P. (1949). I did not interview the dead. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.