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PR Pioneers: World's Only Museum of Public Relations Keeps 100 Years of PR History Alive and Accessible

Public relations has always prided itself on being a truly distinctive field, one with its own set of rules and protocols that don’t always fit the form of those of other industries. Not surprisingly, PR has a unique and interesting history—a long story of events, opinions and incidents that has made PR what it is today—that every PR pro and aspiring practitioner should be familiar with. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of a very dedicated group, that story is able to be told.

The Museum of Public Relations is a non-profit organization in New York City at CUNY Baruch College in the Newman Library Archives and Special Collections, and is the only public relations museum in the world—the only place that acts as a repository for all PR papers and artifacts from the great communicators in history who are now gone. “It is uniquely ours—no other industry has something quite like what we have and what we do,” the staff proudly declares.

Founded in 1997, the Museum is considered the world’s largest collection of materials documenting PR history. Among the organization’s possessions are more than 600 significant books, including many signed first editions, along with myriad artifacts, correspondence and photographs of historically significant industry people and events. Displays and exhibits include examples of old media technologies, a digital archive of videotaped interviews with influential leaders such as Daniel Edelman, Harold Burson and David Finn, and other artifacts that chronicle the evolution of the field of public relations.

The inspiration for the Museum is another great historical figure—industry pioneer Edward Bernays, widely recognized as the “father of public relations.” In 1919, Bernays opened one of the first offices as Public Relations Counselor in New York, and later taught the first PR course at New York University in 1923, and publishing the first groundbreaking book on PR, Crystallizing Public Relations, that same year.

Visitors have access to dozens of books—many of them from Bernays’ own library—covering such subjects as psychology, social psychology, news media and political history. Authors include such well-regarded thinkers as Walter Lippman, Gustave LeBon, Everett Martin and Alfred Trotter.

Some of the highlights since the Museum moved into Baruch College last September: 

  • A visit by Harold Burson, who said the Museum fulfilled a wish he’s long had for the PR industry—to finally have an "institutional memory" of its own history.
  • A visit by a Baruch Marketing class, whose students later wrote to say that they "finally" understood the role PR plays in business
  • A visit by students of the Hofstra PRSSA, who tweeted how "cool" they thought the Museum was (especially leafing through newspapers from 1830).
  • The filming this month of interviews inside the Museum, for an upcoming documentary for Korea’s Educational Broadcasting System, "The Rise of the Modern PR Profession."
  • A lecture by Stuart Ewen ("PR! A Social History) organized by the Museum on March 25 commemorating the 20th year since Bernays’ death.
  • Outreach from "Club Edward Bernays" in Buenos Aires and the "Edward L Bernays School of Communications" in Zagreb, Croatia.  

Shelley Spector, president of Spector & Associates, adjunct professor at Baruch College, and founder of the Museum of Public Relations, took the opportunity to answer some question for Daily ‘Dog about the Museum’s history and offerings—and why every PR pro should pay a visit:

How did the idea for a PR Museum first come up?

It was actually Bernays’ idea. My husband, Barry and I, who had been friends with Bernays since 1994, were at his home in Cambridge, Mass., celebrating his 101st birthday. All these guests were milling about, checking out the dozens and dozens of photos, letters and documents from the beginning of the 20th century—photos of Edison, Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and of course, his uncle Sigmund Freud. That’s when I thought to ask him what his intentions were for all these priceless items. His answer: "I’d like them to be used to start a museum one day. A museum of public relations."  What a great idea! What better way to preserve not just Bernays’ legacy, but to showcase literally the first hundred years of the PR profession! We were so excited about it that we immediately promised we’d establish a museum, even though we had no experience at all with museums. So after he passed away, the family invited us to collect the items that would form the foundation of our collection. That was the beginning—in March of 1995—of the Museum of Public Relations. And ever since, we’ve been collecting materials from a wide assortment of other PR leaders.

You say you have several dozen objects in the archives. What are the most interesting ones? 

One of the more precious artifacts we have is a souvenir light bulb used at the Light’s Golden Jubilee in 1929, in honor of Edison’s invention, 50 years before that. 

There are several first editions of Bernays’ famous books that we took from his library, including some books given to him by Freud.  We have lots of old media "technologies" from the 1900s—a stereoscope, a candlestick phone, a manual typewriter. This is so young practitioner get a sense of what it was like do PR in the days of Ivy Lee, Carl Byoir and Edward Bernays.  Today’s generation can’t imagine life before the Internet.

We’ve heard that young PR professionals really get a kick out of their visits to the Museum. What do these young practitioners find most fascinating?

There’s the original 1966 press release announcing the formation of the National Organization of Women, written by Muriel Fox, the PR genius behind the women’s movement of the Sixties. She donated that to us at our opening event on September 15. We also have a fascinating collection of letters from some of the most important people in the 20th century: Henry Luce, Alfred Sloan, Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Ford among them. We also have 100 hours of videotaped interviews of Bernays, Dan Edelman, Harold Burson, Chet Burger, and more. 

What do you hope they gain from a visit to the Museum?  

I’d love them to “get their hands dirty" with these historical objects, to really get a sense of not just the history of this profession, but also the profession’s impact on history. If you spend an hour at the Museum, you will get a sense of the role the field played in important social movements of the 20th century, like civil rights and equality for women. In addition, you’ll come away knowing a bit of history you may not have known before. 

We understand you’re also an adjunct professor at Baruch College? How does the Museum fit into the curriculum?  

We often hold classes in the Museum so they can get a deeper sense of the history of PR, rather than just reading about it in textbooks. It has also become a terrific resource for research projects. For their midterm projects, for example, each student was assigned a category of the collection for which they had to create an annotated bibliography for the museum. Some topics included: the history of world’s fairs; the influence of Sigmund Freud on PR; the life and work of Doris Felischman Bernays; the evolution of media technologies; and the
rise of the corporate PR department. 

How can the public relations community support the Museum? What do you need most to continue providing tours, lectures and maintaining the collection?

The Museum is a non-profit, 501 3c organization, and operates strictly on donations. In order to continue maintaining our collection and operating the museum, we would greatly welcome any and all financial support from the PR community. All contributors are recognized on our website. 

Your website has become an incredible resource for anyone in PR—practitioners, students, researchers, media. What can I find on it? 

Since 1997, our site has been one of the most frequently used educational resource for PR students around the world. We have online "exhibits" about Arthur Page, Moss Kendrix, Carl Byoir, etc. There’s a Resources section with hard-to-find books and scholarly articles for free download. There’s also the research papers that students in my class are writing this semester, about topics ranging from the “Perception Problems of the Pharoahs,” to “How Plato Would Counsel Brian Williams.”

Your Facebook page too is gaining in popularity. What kind of content do you post? And what posts produce the most "likes"? 

The success of the Museums’s Facebook page has become truly gratifying. It’s one of the only online platforms that attracts PR students, professors and practitioners from all corners of the world. We have about 4,300 followers from 54 countries: Vietnam, Kenya, Slovenia, Peru, Saudi Arabia and Korea, to name a few. We generally post interesting bits of history, all with a communications theme. We recently posted a 1910 article about "texting" of telegraph operators; early forms of "social media" in Ancient Rome; examples of early films by Thomas Edison; and newsreels of propaganda in the U.S. and abroad. 

What do you think Edward Bernays would say if he saw the museum today? Would he think you fulfilled his wishes? 

In the 20 years since Bernays’ passing, the Museum has enabled thousands around the world to have a deeper understanding of Bernays’ original vision for the public relations counsel. Thanks to the videos online, you can see and hear Bernays’ talk about his theories and case studies, in a way far more engaging than what you’d read in a textbook. We get to hear—in Bernays’ own words—how public relations is a social science; how much of his principles and models of PR were influenced by Sigmund Freud. He’d also be very pleased that we’ve been able to build on the foundation he gave us, enabling us to make sure future generations of PR professionals understand the important history that came before them.

Visit the museum at Baruch College CUNY, 151 East 25th Street, New York, NY 10010. Make a donation here.

Richard Carufel

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