A History of Psychology Museum? Yes, Please!

  • SumoMe


This past Thursday, I finally got the opportunity to visit an amazing place I found out about a few months ago. I hadn’t known that there was such a thing as a museum for the history of American psychology, and it never occurred to me to look for one. I stumbled across the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron completely on accident.

I was digging around the web to find more information about Daniel Starch, the subject of my next book. Starch was a psychologist and a pioneer in the marketing research industry in America. It turns out that the CHP has an enormous collection of his personal and professional writings archived in their reading room. When I found out about the museum, I wasn’t sure what I was more excited about–seeing those papers, or seeing the museum that housed them.

I spend most of my time at the museum in the reading room, frantically trying to shuffle through the Starch papers in a small amount of time. However, I did get a chance to roam through the museum. It is small at this point, but it is expanding and what is there is well worth the trip to see if you happen to be in the area. In this article, I thought I’d provide a brief overview of some interesting things I noticed…

The Reading Room

First, I’ll talk briefly about the reading room, where I spend most of my time. The Daniel Starch papers were stored in 7 boxes with several folders housed in each box. The documents ranged from books, published and unpublished, that Starch had written, newspaper articles about Starch and his family, personal letters written to and from Starch, professional documents from Starch’s company, and countless entries from Starch’s diary throughout his life. I visited the museum with a simple question: is there enough information available to write a biography on this guy? I came away with a clear answer: absolutely.

If you have any idea who Daniel Starch is or are interested in learning, here are a few tidbits I picked up:

  • Starch’s father, Frank Starch, immigrated to Wisconsin from the Sudetenland in 1885–when was 4 years old.
  • Starch’s wife, Amy Hopson Starch, was a published poet.
  • Starch’s nephew, Ken Starch, was successful fullback at the University of Wisconsin and went on to play briefly for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
  • Starch was a middle child and had four siblings.
  • Before becoming known as a marketing researcher, Starch was famous in the world of education. His early publication of Educational Psychology received praise from countless educators and journalists throughout the U.S.
  • In the last decade of his life, Starch wrote a massive, unpublished manuscript of 200 great books. To make his list, he surveyed 500 random people from the then current edition (1970) of Who’s Who in America–making his work, to my knowledge, the only statistically valid list of great books in existence. The top 5 books on the list (defined “in terms of a book’s influence on the thought and history of mankind”) were The Bible, The Origin of Species, Hamlet, Aristotle’s Ethics, and The Iliad.

The Starch papers aren’t the only thing you can find there. The walls were lined with glass cases stuffed with out-of-print books from some of the first American psychologists. If I had had time, I would’ve looked through the documents of some other psychologists. The Reading Room is Candyland for anyone interested in understanding how the mind works and the history of how we’ve developed our understanding of it.

Some things you might want to know before visiting:

  • If you want to take notes long-hand, you can’t bring a pen into the room–only a pencil. However, you can take notes on your tablet, phone, or laptop.
  • You can take as many pictures of the documents as you want. You just have to keep a record of how many pictures you took in each folder. And, of course, you can’t publish them anywhere without the CHP’s permission (they have guidelines available for the do’s and don’t’s). I took so many pictures of the documents that my iPhone died and I had to recharge it before continuing. If you want to have scans of documents instead, they are currently 25 cents.
  • The reading room is only open at certain times, and you have to reserve your spot two weeks in advance. The archivists are available to open the reading room to you Monday through Friday 10am-4pm. If you’re interested in researching a particular topic or psychologist, a listing of the archives can be found here.

The Museum

Now, I’ll share with you some of the cool exhibits on display at the museum. The museum is open Monday through Friday 10am-4pm and Saturday 12pm-4pm. Also, you do not need to have an appointment. So, even if you just happen to be passing through on I-76, do yourself a favor and take the detour.

The Barnabus Box

The Barnabus BoxPsychologists Rosemary Pierrel Sorrentino and J. Gilmour Serman used the “Barnabus Box” as one of the earliest studies on reward in punishment. Using this contraption they trained Barnabus the rat to pull a lever, at which point the gate would lift and the rat would receive a treat.

The Skinner Box

The Skinner Box


Similar the previous contraption, this device was used to test reward and punishment in animals. Only, this device was used by one of the most famous psychologists in history, BF Skinner. Through his experiments with this contraption, Skinner coined the terms “operant conditioning” and “reinforcing stimulus,” which came to be foundational to his work.

The Franz Muller-Lyer Test

The Franz Muller-Lyer TestThis isn’t really an exhibit, but it does explain the history of this now-classic perceptual test. Franz Muller-Lyer was an early psychologist who developed this test in his work on human perception. Professor Adam Alter has a great write up on this peculiarity found here.

Weight Discrimination

Noticing Differences in Weights
This was a neat little exhibit, demonstrating how difficult it is for people to perceive differences in weight. On the bottom of each block, the weight was listed. The trick was to see if you could pick up two different blocks and guess which one weighed more and which one weighed less. Of course, I failed miserably. Early German Philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner is credited with developing this sort of experiment.

The Stroop Effect

The Stroop Effect
Another favorite of perceptual psychology is known as the Stroop Task, developed by John Ridley Stroop in 1935. In this test, subjects were quizzed on how quickly they could correctly state the colors of texts in set 1 versus set 2. This test was fundamental in the development of our understanding how cognitive load influences decision-making capacities.

Milgram’s Shock Box

Milgram's Shock BoxIn one of the most controversial experiments in the history of psychology, Stanley Milgram used this device to test the obedience of ordinary people to authority. Subjects were instructed to ask questions to people sitting on the other side of a wall. If the “learners” got the question wrong, the “teachers” were supposed to shock them using this contraption. The subjects could hear the gasps and moans of pain playing through an audio device whenever they applied a shock. Even so, they continued to follow instructions, shocking the people again and again. Although the box was a prop and the screams of agony were staged, this experiment caused waves of protest. More importantly, it gave us insight into how ordinary people can do evil things when following orders.

The Rorschach Inkblot Test

The Rorschach Inkblot Test
Now the favorite of many a pundit taking jabs at the legitimacy of psychiatry, the Rorschach inkblot test is a classic in developing our understanding of the human subconscious. Developed by Hermann Rorschach, these blots of ink were shown to subjects and what the subjects saw in them was supposed to reveal something about their deep, inner thoughts and emotions.

The IQ Zoo

The IQ Zoo
Marian Breland Bailey and her husband Keller Breland are known as the first applied animal psychologists. The Kellers used their knowledge to train animals for the entertainment industry. At the IQ Zoo (from which these props come), the Kellers allowed visitors to see animals perform amazing and amusing feats such as a Duck playing a piano and a pig depositing coins into a piggy bank.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison ExperimentProps from another infamous experiment in psychology are shown above. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, Psychologist Philip Zimbardo divided a group of subjects into “prisoners” and “guards,” observing over the course of several days how they interacted with one another. The guards became increasingly more overbearing and the prisoners increasingly more subservient, many of the participants even starting to believe the experiment was real. Although the experiment was slated for two weeks, it had to be ended in just a few days because it had gotten too far out of hand.

Plan a Visit

So, what are you waiting for? This place was amazing, and I would highly recommend you making a visit. It is small, but well worth it.

Arkon, OH is located about 40 miles Southwest of Cleveland. It’s also known for Goodyear Tire and, for a long time, held a museum for the history of rubber, but that closed down.

If I were you, I would visit the online archives, find a subject I’m interested in learning about, and build an entire vacation around doing research in the reading room. Oh, wait; that’s right, normal people don’t do that sort of thing. Oh well, it was worth a try…

The Curiosity Manifesto: Investigate