Edward "Ned" J. Burns (1899-1953) received the Pugsley Silver Medal in 1953. The award citation stated, "While we at the American Scenic and Heritage Preservation Society may think of him especially for his fine design and handicraft in connection with the beautiful dioramas in Federal Hall [where ASHPS was officed in New York City], he was known from coast-to-coast for an almost endless sequence of museum contributions to the country's national historic areas."
Burns was creatively engaged in museum work for 35 years of his short life. His record is one of considerable accomplishment. It is especially instructive to anyone concerned with the educational value of museums, for Burns was both a product and a producer of museum education. He received much of his schooling through museums, and used his talent to develop exhibits that taught.
From family trips when he was young, he never forgot the excitement of finding new trees, flowers, and animal life. These experiences sharpened his awareness of the natural environment around him. Burns first learned respect for tools and for precise workmanship from his father. He resented the mishandling of tools almost as much as the inadequate craftsmanship that resulted.
When he joined the NPS, one of his first skirmishes with regulations was over the purchase of fine tools. Paint brushes made to Federal specifications, for example, differed greatly in quality and price from the fine artists' brushes he required. He won exemptions from these specifications and thus managed to keep his shops provided with the proper tools for building exhibits.
When Burns left school, he started work at the Staten Island Museum as a guard in 1918, and he held this position until 1923. These were years of professional training, during which he also did janitor's work, guided visitors through the Museum, became a skilled projectionist, learned to give talks, took part in the Museum's club program, and above all gained experience at preparing exhibits.
These years gave him a good general background in museum work, and aroused his interest in exhibit preparation. Burns visited the Brooklyn Children's Museum and saw miniature groups that had been made by Dwight Franklin. The term diorama was not applied to such groups until later. Characteristically, he returned to Staten Island determined to make better ones for his own museum. The first group he attempted was an Indian campsite filled with peaceful, everyday activities. It was designed to teach and was placed on display in November 1920.
His early efforts, explored many of the basic problems of diorama construction. He experimented with perspective and lighting in outdoor and indoor scenes, and their impaction processes, action, and mood. He realized he needed more training in art techniques before he could achieve the quality he desired. By attending night classes, he completed a four-year course in sculpture, painting, and design at the New York School of Industrial Arts. He also studied at the Art Students League. After his formal training in art he continued to paint landscapes for a number of years, and he found enduring satisfaction in modeling miniature figures.
In 1923 Burns became preparator at the American Museum of Natural History, which offered an opportunity to work with leading experts in many types of exhibits. The museum was building displays of outstanding quality and was developing new techniques. Over the next five and one-half years, he acquired skill in taxidermy; he learned the intricate and varied methods of making foreground accessories of trees, rocks, leaves, and flowers; he became expert in the techniques of molding and casting; he produced life-size figures for anthropological exhibits; and he made miniature groups illustrating American Indian life.
His contacts with the education department of the museum were important personally as well as professionally. Nancy Alice True, a young biology teacher and graduate of Brown University, was on the American Museum staff working with school classes, especially those for the blind. Ned married her in 1930.
Late in the 1920s, a new kind of museum was being born in New York City. Several prominent citizens felt that the people of the city should be familiar with its history, but no existing institution was equipped to do this. These leaders set out, therefore, to organize the Museum of the City of New York. Burns was appointed its chief preparator and began his new assignment early in 1929. His dioramas were the best known features of Burns' work at the Museum of the City of New York. The miniature interior of a 5 and 10 cent store was a marvel of detail; the street scene after the big blizzard was cold and moody; others showed historic incidents of quiet drama; and still others evoked a whole period in a single scene. His duties included making the first accurate scale model of New York City as it was in the mid-17th century. Existing information on every lot and building, pinpointed to the year was represented, and had to be assembled and studied; and streets, houses, fences, canals, wharves, and other physical features had to be constructed in proper scale.
Building exhibits for a whole new museum was not a one-man undertaking. Burns selected and trained young men to help him. They were the first of an impressive list of Burns-trained museum people who perpetuated his professional standards, working as preparators, curators, or directors in national, state, and local museums.
In 1935, Burns moved on to the NPS. The men who first undertook to interpret for visitors the magnificent scenery and natural phenomena of the national parks soon found they needed more than words. They discovered that small museums actually located in the parks effectively supplemented their guided field trips and talks. During the 1920s the NPS, with strong support from the American Association of Museums and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, developed museums in most of the larger western parks. In 1933 a number of historical reservations in the East, formerly administered by the War Department, were transferred to the NPS. These battlefields and historic buildings needed visual explanation as much as the scenic parks. Dr. Carl P. Russell, who had been responsible for much of the progressive museum work at Yosemite and Yellowstone, was assigned the job in Washington of developing museums for the eastern parks. He hired Burns, as superintendent of field laboratories, headquartered at Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey.
The Morristown laboratory pioneered a new type of historical exhibit. A museum was being prepared for Vicksburg National Military Park, with special emphasis on the famous civil war campaign and siege. This museum presented a continuous narrative, in which each exhibit was a chapter. Some chapters bore little or no relation to the historic specimens that museum workers knew how to use, such as exhibits on the hard-to-illustrate causes of the civil war and on military strategy. The Vicksburg Museum was an experiment, and the beginning of a long period in which Ned Burns tackled difficult problems and sought new solutions.
In 1936, Burns was transferred to Washington as chief curator of the Interior Museum. In 1938, he was appointed assistant chief of the NPS museum program. The Morristown laboratory had been moved to Washington, where a smaller exhibit shop (which had been building topographic models as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps project at Fort Hunt, Virginia) was combined with it. From 1939 until his death he was chief of the museum division (later museum branch) of the NPS.
World War II interrupted all museum development in the parks. The NPS offices were moved to Chicago and with a minimum staff Burns was faced with the challenge of preserving the national collections scattered in parks across the country. Some had to be moved from critical military areas; others had to be kept on display where service men and war workers sought recreation and perspective.
One important product of the war years was Burns' personal campaign to obtain adequate preservation for the growing collections entrusted to the NPS. Proper storage and treatment were expensive, and there was no provision in budgets or appropriations for this new responsibility. With patient sagacity Burns kept the preservation needs before administrators until regular appropriations for the purpose were made.
At the conclusion of the war, he again pursued the active development of park museums, including building and installing exhibits in museums that had been constructed before the war, modernizing museums that had been in use ten to twenty years, and undertaking new museum projects. In the years that followed, the museums completed included the Manassas National Battlefield Park Museum, the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park Museum, the Chickamauga Battlefield Museum, the Ocmulgee National Monument Museum, the Ochs Memorial Museum on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, the William H. Jackson Memorial Wing at Scotts Bluff National Monument, and the Custer Battlefield Museum. Burns was active in all of them, but perhaps the Custer Museum pleased him most. "Custer's Last Stand" was a diorama subject that challenged his skill because it had been represented many times, each attempt compounding the errors of its predecessors. He set out to recreate the scene as accurately and as dramatically as historical research would permit. The result was one of his finest dioramas.
Burns' skills in exhibit preparation were always in demand, and the record of his work includes a long list of exhibits built outside his regular, full-time job. He took on the burden of this extra work, partly because each new exhibit was a challenge to him, but also because museum salaries left little margin for rearing a family of three children. Among the exhibits he built under contract were a series of dioramas for the Detroit Children's Museum and the Castine Museum in Maine, displays for the Sesquicentennial Exposition and the Century of Progress Exposition, two large traveling models for IBM, and two detailed scale models of Colonial Williamsburg.
When Burns joined the Park Service, it had between twenty-five and thirty museums; when he died it had 114. He created museums that were of such high quality and served their purpose so well that more and more park administrators wanted them. When funds became available to publish a manual for park museum workers, Burns wrote the National Park Service Field Manual for Museums which was subsequently updated and continued to be used long after his death.
Ned Burns was a craftsman, justly proud of the work of his hands. He was a hard and conscientious worker, setting as fast a pace and as high standards for himself as for others. He was a good administrator, training his men to produce their best, patient with their shortcomings, thoughtful of their troubles. He knew museums and their problems and did his full share in making them better. He was made a fellow of the British Museums Association; the Department of the Interior awarded him its Distinguished Service Award; and the American Association of Museums established a Ned Burns Memorial Fund to finance publications in his field of interest.
Adapted from: Lewis, R. (1954, Fall). Ned J. Burns: Educator, naturalist, and museum expert. Proceedings of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. 16(2), 61-74.