Friday, January 21, 2011

Victorians, Pt. 2

"Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man."
-- Henry Adams

On collection and museums:

A contemporary view of the Victorian is mainly derived from Lytton Strachey's morally anachronistic condemnation of the Victorians as well as from publications such as Victoria Magazine. Such hideous recreations via antiqued envelope potpourri sachets really do an injustice to the delightful clutter of the Victorians. Not only that, these sorts of associations really do an injustice to the intellectually engaged notion of collection (and clutter) of the Victorians.

In Steven Conn's fascinating Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926, he records "cousin"of the rise of museums in the 19th century as the "bourgeois acquisitiveness" of the middle class. "As members of the American middle class expanded in tandem with the industrial economy, they had increasing mounts of disposable income that they disposed of by buying the newly available products of that industrial economy--furniture, photographs, ceramics, an almost endless array of gewgaws. The objects that filled middle-class parlors gave physical and visual manifestation to the aspirations of this class. According to Miles Orvell, 'individuals sought an elevation of status through the purchase and display of goods whose appearance counted more than their substance.'" (This, of course has implications for us, as true inheritors of a material culture.)

Conn goes on to expand on the collection of objects not necessarily or inherently valuable in themselves ("objects whose value lay in some transcendent aesthetic"), but rather in "objects invested with knowledge".  The challenge for a new crop of museums lay in distinguishing their collections from a mere assortment of curiosities (see the Mutter Museum versus the Wagner Free Institute--both amazing Retronaut experiences), but rather a collection that would provide a perfectly comprehensible argument for a positivist understanding of the natural world. They assumed "that careful examination of specimens would produce useful educational results" to anyone who looked at them. (The Victoria and Albert Museum was, indeed, created for craftsmen to be able to access and study the applied decorative arts of earlier cultures--thus the organization by object type, rather than geographical specificity or timeline).

Museums were not in fact merely mausoleums of ancient cultures and natural history. Nor were they primarily for the education of children or "popular inspection". Rather they were supposed to be "suitably furnished to answer the requirements of the original investigator." The Victorians believed that "[k]nowledge derived from the direct inspection of objects was gained without mediation and therefore was more genuine." Furthermore Conn states, "If the pursuit of science was predicated on the careful examination and study of objects, then anyone with access to the specimens could be trained to the task. Museums would provide democratic access to that knowledge and thus they would be places where new knowledge was created within the context of American democratic aspirations."

"Having collected, described, and classified the constituent parts of the natural world, what remained finally for natural scientists was to create orderly, systematic displays of representative specimens. As a final flourish to the work of natural history, museums dazzled with public with science's ability to control and order the world, to put it under glass, to put it literally on the end of a pin."

Museums were to be the place of cutting edge scientific investigation. Since this time (and more fully described by Conn) the museum has evolved into a repository of knowledge, an interpretation of the experience of objects, and now into a reinterpretation of historical understanding in view of contemporary values (see the National Museum of the American Indian). Blake Gopnik even recently claimed that the museum was now the cathedral of cultural artifacts, reminiscent of the sacramentalization of the everyday object by collector Peter H. Schweitzer. Phillip Kennicott writes about the changing perspective of the museum's role in his article on the proposed Latino museum. And all this because of the enthusiastic engagement and expectation of the common man by the Victorians, and subsequent embrace of these institutions by those same people. Thank the Victorians for providing the basis for this piece of our cultural fabric.

So when I look at my shelves full of books and carefully curated curious I smile and think of the Victorians.

For more on museum theory read Steven Conn's book, AS Byatt's The Children's Book, any of Byron Farwell's excellent books, and visit the Mutter Museum and the Wagner Free Institute in Philadelphia.

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