Daniel Bowen: Boston’s Pioneer Museum Keeper

[This article originally appeared in the Boston Tab newspaper in May 1999]

Contemporary Boston is a city of many great museums.

The history of museum keeping in Boston had its modest beginnings in 1791, with the arrival from Philadelphia of one Daniel Bowen, age thirty-one, a close friend of the patriot-painter Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia, the nations pioneer museum keeper. [see my previous article on Peale in the “Patriot Painters” series].

B-1. Daniel Bowen

A portrait of the elderly Daniel Bowen

It has been suggested that Bowen left Philadelphia to avoid competing with his good friend. But whereas Peale’s contributions to the field of museum keeping have been widely heralded by historians, those of Bowen have received scant attention.

The details of Bowen’s early life are obscure. One source refers to him as Daniel Bowen, sea fighter of the Revolution, who had been in and about [Philadelphia] with a waxworks show after the peace, intent upon making his fortune.

In addition to wax figures, Bowen brought to Boston several canvasses by the recently deceased English painter Robert Edge Pine (1730-88), as well as ample financial resources, which he may have gained from Revolutionary War privateering activities.

B-2. R.E. Pine, Unknown British Officer (1761-70)

A work of English painter Robert Edge Pine depicting an unknown British officer, dating from the 1761-70 period. Bowen owned several portraits by this fine English artist, which he placed on display in his museum. Interestingly, Pine spent the last four years of his life as a resident of Philadelphia, where he painted George Washington, among other prominent American leaders.

That Bowen was financially well off is demonstrated by his purchase, shortly after his arrival, of a nine acre estate, Lime Grove, in the part of Cambridge that in 1807 became the town of Brighton, an estate situated about eight miles west of the city. Since he apparently never resided in the city proper, Bowen should be accounted one of Boston’s earliest suburban commuters.

B-3. Lime Grove (Brighton residence of Daniel Bowen)

Lime Grove, Bowen’s estate in Little Cambridge (now Brighton, Massachusetts). This photograph dates from the early years of the 20th century, the once fashionable country house having in the intervening period suffered considerable deterioration.

Museum keeping was then a lot less specialized than it is today. The nation’s earliest museums included everything from paintings, to waxen figures, to stuffed animals and birds, to public lectures and performances, to animal and variety acts—all manner of exotica mixed together for the edification and diversion of an entertainment-starved public.

Daniel Bowen’s museum had its modest beginnings in an exhibit of wax figures and paintings that he mounted in 1791 at the American Coffee House, a popular tavern located on the north side of State Street, opposite the intersection of Kilby Street.

The waxen figures displayed in this first exhibit included representations of Washington, Franklin, and John Adams. That of local favorite Adams, had on either side of him Liberty with staff and cap and Justice with sword and balance. David and Goliath were the subject of another waxen display, with the figure of Goliath standing some twelve feet high.

As more space became available, figures representing The Sleeping Nymph and The Salem Beauty as well as characters from popular literature were added to Bowen’s waxworks. By the mid-1790s, with public outrage against Jacobin France at an all-time high, figures were added showing the condemned French King Louis XVI bidding farewell to his family, as well as that of a man being guillotined.

Space in the American Coffee House being limited, it was not long before Bowen moved his collection to more ample quarters in a hall on the top floor of a schoolhouse on nearby Hollis Street.

Museum keeping was a lucrative profession only if the public could be induced to make repeated visits. This meant a constant addition of new exhibits, which required additional space. Thus Bowen moved his establishment a third time in 1795, to a large and elegant hall at the corner of Bromfield and Tremont Streets opposite Paddock’s Mall, fronting on the Granary Burying Ground, a popular promenade of the day.

B-4. An undated advertisement for the Columbian Museeum which

A post 1801 advertisement for the Columbian Museum, then situated on Boston’s Tremont Street, proclaiming that its collection housed 20,000 curiosities

One of the principal attractions of the museum’s new Tremont Street facility was a huge painting showing Columbia, symbol of the republic, mourning the ravages of the war then being waged between Britain and France, a conflict highly damaging to oceangoing trade, which was the economic lifeblood of Boston. Mr. Bowen’s Museum, as it was commonly called, was renamed The Columbian in 1801, possibly at the time of the dedication of this massive canvass.

However, there was much more to the Columbian Museum than waxen figures and a picture gallery. Public entertainments and lectures were also staged, including even occasional dramatic performances and variety acts.

One exhibit, more suggestive of P. T. Barnum than the sedate offerings of a modern museum, featured a bibulous elephant who consumed vast quantities of spirituous liquor, the museum’s advertising assuring the public that thirty bottles of porter, of which he draws the corks himself, is not an uncommon allowance. All of this, needless to say, occurred in the days before the establishment of the MSPCA!

Despite such vulgarities, Bowen’s Museum is said to have had a significant influence on the history of American painting. The works of art on display there, especially those of Robert Edge Pine, formed the only public art gallery in Boston. Art historians credit this collection with influencing three major painters: Washington Allston, the great Romantic painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, better known as the inventor of the telegraph, and Edward Greene Malbone, a miniaturist of note, all of whom resided in the Boston area in the 1790s.

B-5. Malbone's miniture of Washington Allston

Here we see Edward Greene Malbone’s handsome miniature of Washington Allston. Malbone and Allston, close friends, took highly divergent paths artistically. Malbone became the leading American miniaturist of his day, while Allston produced giant canvasses on literary and Biblical themes. Both, however, are said to have benefitted from exposure to the paintings on display in Bowen’s Columbian Museum.

Another great artistic contribution that Daniel Bowen rendered Boston lay in inducing his nephew, Abel Bowen, a highly talented wood engraver, to move to Boston from New York in 1812. Abel’s first workshop in Boston was established in the Columbian Museum itself, and several of his earliest works were created to advertise museum exhibits and performances. For the next almost 40 years, Abel Bowen created a series of handsome wood engravings of Boston’s principal landmarks and historical events that contributed significantly to the city’s historical legacy.

B-6a.Abel Bowen noted engraver, nephew of Daniel Bowen. png

Wood engraver Abel Bowen, Daniel Bowen’s highly talented nephew who helped promote his uncle’s museum.

B-6b. Bowen engraving referencing the Colubian Museum

An engraving by Abel Bowen noting that he was then conducting his engraving business at the Columbian Museum on Boston’s Tremont Street.

On January 15, 1803, the Columbian Museum’s Tremont Street building was tragically destroyed in a spectacular fire that consumed Bowen’s entire collection. This conflagration was so huge that its glow could be seen from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, seventy miles away. Daniel Bowen, however, demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of this frightful disaster, for within five months his Columbian Museum was back in business on the second floor of a building on Milk Street, opposite the Old South Church.

This was but a temporary home, however. Wishing to reestablish his business on Tremont Street, near the mall, Bowen proceeded to build a five-story brick structure on a lot directly east of the King’s Chapel Burying Ground. His partner in this venture was W.M.S. Doyle. This large- structure, some 34 feet wide and 108 feet deep, rose to the commanding height of 84 feet. The top of the new Columbian Museum building featured an observatory, surmounted by a statue of Minerva. Bowen dedicated the impressive new edifice with much fanfare on November 27, 1806.

B-7. Membership Ticket, Columbian Museum

The image at the upper left hand corner of this museum ticket of admission shows the 1807 Tremont Street headquarters of the Columbian Museum

On January 16, 1807, less than two months after its opening, Bowen’s second Tremont Street headquarters suffered the same fate as its predecessor, destruction by fire. The flames that consumed the 1806 building were said to have erupted from equipment set up for a show called The Phantasmagoria, involving spectreology and dancing witches.

Even more tragic than the destruction of the museum and its contents, was the heavy loss of human life the fire exacted. A large crowd of spectators had gathered in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, adjacent to the Museum, to watch the progress of the fire when one of the walls of the museum collapsed into their midst, burying nine boys between the ages of ten and fifteen.

In true Puritan fashion, Boston voices cried out that such displays as the Phantasmagoria were sacrilegious, and that a wrathful God had exacted a fitful punishment on Boston.

B-8. Early 19th century view of the King's Chapel Burying Ground

The King’s Chapel Burying Ground, site of a frightful 1807 tragedy in which nine boys between the ages of ten and 15 were crushed to death when a wall of the Columbian Museum collapsed into their midst.

Here again, however, David Bowen demonstrated incredible resilience, for by June 2, 1807 a new two-story Columbian Museum stood on the identical site. Bowen operated this more modest facility in partnership with Doyle until 1815, at which point, for reasons not entirely clear, he sold his share of the museum to Doyle, disposed of his Brighton estate, and left Boston permanently. Bowen was 55 years of age when he departed Boston. The Museum survived under Doyle’s management for another ten years, at which point it was bought by its rival, the New England Museum.

As to David Bowen, Boston’s pioneer Museumkeeper, he lived on to the ripe old age of 96, dying in Philadelphia in 1856.

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