In 1888, Thomas Greenwood, a reformer and campaigner for museums and libraries, wrote that museums ‘should be considered as absolutely necessary for the welfare of every Municipality throughout the country.’ He went on to suggest that ‘It is only the rate-supported museums which are doing really useful work.’1
Such a judgement puts municipal museums at the heart of the Victorian urban fabric and society. Yet it was not at all clear, even to the most committed museum apologist, precisely what function they might fulfil in municipalities. Among the objects that Greenwood listed for such an institution were to provide rational amusement, to facilitate both broad popular education and specialised, advanced studies, and to represent the locality both in terms of its natural features and its commercial concerns. Coming from a very different set of concerns, though, Ruskin argued that museums should aim for education not entertainment, and advanced not elementary education at that.2
This book, in examining the birth and development of municipal museums up to 1914, attempts to understand why so much in the way of hopes and fears was pinned on these institutions; how they acted on society and how society acted on them. It was not only in the nineteenth century that museums were seen as important if contradictory places; they have increasingly appeared in various studies in history, cultural studies, museology and art history as agencies creating modernity, policing the working class, creating legitimacy for the elite; producing national and imperial discourse and developing new forms of professional and subject-based authority.3
It has been argued that ‘museums were the archetypal institutional form of the modem period.’4
One gets the impression that these were extremely powerful instruments for the shaping of society, individual consciousness, and knowledge. Municipal museums were popular places, with large numbers of visitors; but they were also quite fragile, chronically and sometimes acutely short of resources, struggling to achieve a professional staff base, and dependent on the whims of a small number of councillors and donors. They were local institutions with local priorities, and need to be seen as part of the machinery for contesting and negotiating class, status and interest claims in the Victorian town.
Despite the quite dramatic growth of interest in museums in general, municipal museums remain rather neglected both by historians and museologists. Yet there is a case for considering municipal museums as particularly worth studying because of the way they can reveal details, weaknesses and inconsistencies that are not present in national and other more prestigious museums. It is worth examining the
work of Daniel Sherman in some detail here; it focuses specifically on nineteenth-century municipal museums, in France. As he asserts,
Paris alone can tell only part of the story. A full understanding of the complexity of the art museum’s development in France entails extending the field of investigation beyond the capital and beyond the national museum.5
He links the expansion and improvement of municipal museums to the consolidation and access of power of local bourgeois elites, who were assuming, by 1850, roles as councillors; while still indicating the manifold links between centre and provinces, culturally and politically.6
He then investigates links between the bourgeoisie, the social ‘work’ they wanted from museums, and the narratives embodied in the museums; and stresses throughout the historical complexity of the ‘museum’ concept:
Critiques that neglect the complexity of the museum’s construction to focus on its ideological coherence are in effect accepting museums’ terms of reference…. A historical approach to art museums entails nothing more nor less than recognising their constituent elements as … sets of contingencies.7
This idea, that one needs to look not at the ways in which museums formed coherent cultural initiatives, but at their historical contingency, is echoed by Marcia Pointon, who has commented, in relation to the expansion of work in museum studies, that
there is a marked paucity of detailed published research which links the often wide-ranging theoretical concerns of ‘museology’ with historically specific situations,8
although the very source of this quotation goes a considerable way to repairing this deficit. A similar point is made by Prior: ‘Theoretically informed empirical studies are particularly needed in moving towards a more robust sociology of museums.’9
Again, though, although these two books look at a variety of institutions, they do not examine municipal museums.
These quotes also highlight the point that increasing study of museums has brought questions of methodology and theoretical frameworks to the fore. Such questions did not much concern those social historians who considered museums as part of the growth of the civic and leisure provisions of the nineteenth-century town, but they have become a burning issue for those museologists, cultural studies scholars, sociologists and art historians who have joined the debate in the last decade or two; as one commentator has said,
This body of literature has begun the complex task of widening the scope of analysis in order to subject practices of collecting,
classifying and displaying to conceptual probes drawn from the social sciences and humanities.10
Another has contrasted analyses which see museums as ‘sites… of architecture, of exhibitions, of national or cultural narratives, or of political and pedagogical projects aimed at different constituencies’ with their own which
focuses on museums as the intricate amalgam of historical structures and narratives, practices and strategies of display, and the concerns and imperatives of various governing ideologies.11
This increasing emphasis on a more conceptually complex approach to studying museums has brought to light certain tensions. The first, which has already surfaced, is between theoretical and empirical approaches to museum history. It is unclear, though, how far this distinction does exist, and if it does, why it persists; numerous commentators have bewailed the polarisation, and called for a combination of the two approaches.12
Yet even the most theoretical of studies marshals a respectable amount of empirical evidence; and equally all but the most antiquarian history of museums utilises a few concepts and theories. It may be the case that there are few studies which try to integrate a close, detailed study of a particular museum or set of museums with a sophisticated set of conceptual and theoretical tools, but that is not the same thing. The second tension that seems to exist is between materialist and discursive interpretations of museums; between those that see museums as produced by a prior social and economic reality, and those which see it as produced by, and producing, discourses which constitute reality. Thus for historians of rational recreation, museums were created by the social processes of urbanisation, industrialisation, and class formation; they can be understood by looking at their context and how it shaped them.13
For others, though, museums are implicated in the creation of modem urban society themselves, producing modem populations and identities, certain modes of knowledge and authority, practices of consumption, which all constitute a capitalist society.14
Again, though this may be a creative tension, it does not seem to me that either side can win; this debate is actually giving way to an approach where the material and symbolic realms feed into each other.15
Firstly, an overview of the book. The next chapter deals with the urban context for municipal museums, trying to elucidate what if any were the features of nineteenth-century towns that made the creation of municipal museums likely and desirable. The third chapter also deals with context, in looking at changing ideas about whether public money should be spent on arts and culture. It also looks at other important factors which shaped the way municipal museums emerged; their inheritance of the collections and some of the personnel, and sometimes the premises, of scientific societies, and their dependence on donations, not just of objects, but often of money for buildings too. The fourth chapter looks at who was involved in municipal museums; it traces the different groups who had a stake, and argues that rather than a simple middle-class project, such museums were marked
by divisions within class lines, and challenges from across society. Chapter five
analyses the objects of the museum, trying to unpick in some detail the meanings that were made and circulated through the museum. Although such museums, and particularly their curators, attempted to redefine the museum object as a systematically representative sign standing for knowledge and progress, many of the objects that arrived in museums tended more to signify class or gender belonging, to create legitimacy or status for the donor, or to assert different stories about Britain’s empire. Chapter six
then examines how the objects were used: the displays they were placed in, and the layout of the building in which the displays were situated. This chapter is crucial for testing many of the arguments developed from national museums, which suggest that museums could act as powerful instruments for shaping the behaviour and consciousness of visitors; in municipal museums, by contrast, this may have been possible but was rarely achieved because of resource constraints, divisions between people in charge, and the nature of the objects. Finally in chapter eight
I examine what we know of visitors to municipal museums and their responses to them. This suggests further that they were not necessarily consumed in the way intended, undermining even more the idea that they could function as civilising forces.
The book concludes by arguing that museums were used by bourgeois elites to create distinction and legitimacy for themselves, and even to try and improve or control the working class, but they were not particularly successful in the latter. Rather, as public institutions, museums offered a variety of groups an opportunity to challenge elite ideas and values. Working-class challenges were not always successful, but then the working class seems to have become increasingly unlikely to visit museums; lower middle-class groups may have been more successful, and it could be argued that municipal museums represented a more inclusive version of middle-class-ness by the end of the period.
In the rest of the introduction, I want to pick out some of the themes that concern me most, and try and elucidate what they might mean for museums. Given the expansion in studies of museums and their histories, and ...