Victorian Models in the Modern Museums

Nature’s Museums Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display, by Carla Yanni, states that “One of the most disturbing aspects of classification in Victorian museums is that the natural history museums…all contained objects made by non-western people.” (p. 15) Yet, when looking towards the natural history museums in the world today, the same occurrence happens. Many of these collections were founded during the Victorian era and still have strong linked back to that identity. The question to consider, is how do “contemporary” natural history museums understand their collections of non-western people? Even further, how will natural history museums in the future address these issues to the wider and more diverse audiences that attend museums? As we move towards the future in museums, an important component to consider how are we displaying the objects inside and what do those display choices reflect about our own society. Historian Mario Baglioli expressed that “representation of racial differences and gender roles embedded in many natural history exhibits, are some science museums’ attempt to shape national identities through the celebration of a nation’s scientific and technological “monuments” and heroes.” (p. 15) These non-western objects and collections are a key part to many museums and should not for-sake them. The question for the future is how will we deal with these Victorian models in a modern environment?



5 responses to “Victorian Models in the Modern Museums

  1. I don’t think it’s disturbing that museums would contain objects by non-Western peoples–how else are we supposed to get to know these cultures, especially when so few even middle-class Westerners travel the world? And after all, even those museums that only address Western culture for a Western audience often approach those materials in a biased and problematic way–for example, glorifying colonial histories; providing uncritical historical narratives that are made to seem as Truth; and a general lack of acknowledgment about how cultures outside of our own have influenced our visual and textual histories.

    The (mis)classification and (de)contextualization of objects, whether they be from inside our culture or outside our culture, is the problem. But moving back to the non-Western example that you address, many of these Victorian museums make non-Western cultures seem as if they’re static, or present objects in a social Darwinist format (Africa is in the basement, European art is presented front and center), and just in general, make these cultures seem as if they’re dead or stuck in the past.

    The crucial thing that these museums need to do is present a notion of change and dynamism over time in any cultures and cultural objects that they present. Sometimes this will mean changing up the model completely and moving away from Victorian architecture, display methods, etc. Another thing that will help is when these types of museums begin to understand and explain clearly to their audiences that they have particular objects because of the interests of the collectors and curators who originally gathered the materials in their museums (as one example, many museums have figural West African objects because it appealed to a Western aesthetic, while non-representational East African objects were never collected and thus create a gap in a collection).

    And finally, there are some museums that work well in their original Victorian format because they make the original intentions of the museum clear. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is one of those museums. Pitt Rivers collected both western and non-western materials and so in the case labeled (not so PC) “witchcraft,” you will find both South American and English objects. Westerners too have everyday practices that are unfamiliar to the modern mind, and this is something powerful to present to an audience. As much as we’re different, we’re also the same. I only address the PRM briefly here, but it is worth checking out their website to see how they work with their Victorian past.

  2. This is a great discussion and an important one. Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford is an amazing place and though it is very old it somehow remains vital in its approach. We actually have “Arranging Ethnology” in our assigned reading and its describes this museum in detail. As nations fulfill their obligations to repatriate the heritage of indigenous peoples we will likely see a revolution in how these materials are exhibited and talked about. I know of several museums (and even museums of natural history) that are working directly with indigenous peoples to make sure their story is told in their own voice and from their own perspective. There are of course museums by indigenous peoples. Unfortunately these communities often do not have the resources to build for themselves. There are a few notable exceptions. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum comes to mind. Perhaps a new museum type shall emerge.

    One highly politicized project is the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. At the opening Jacques Chirac stated that the museum’s goal was “to give equal voice to all peoples and their art”. The museum was built by merging the collections of several major 19th century museums including the Museum of Man, the Museum of Natural History and the Louvre. NY Times wrote a review. I recall having a more critical piece but cannot presently find it.

  3. I agree with everything you’ve said.

    But I don’t know how successful I feel that Musée du Quai Branly has been. It goes back to the whole art/artifact debate. It’s great that objects at the Musée are getting their due with clean design and nice lighting, but I don’t know if presenting non-Western objects as art (when most of them were not initially made as “art”), sans context, is a solution. The NY Times article you mention addresses this directly: “should objects that were not created as art be presented as art, isolated from their ethnographic context?” A more critical NYTimes article by Michael Kimmelman, as well as recent articles that address the museum (Heywood, F. “Looks are not enough when it comes to engaging audiences.” Museums Journal v. 109 no. 6 (June 2009) p. 19; Hennes, T. “Representing Others: Musee du Quai Branly and Cite Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration.” Curator v. 52 no. 2 (April 2009) p. 203-11), make the problems of a place like Quai Branly more clear.

    The Mashantucket Pequot Museum does seem to have been a success with both the Pequot community and non-native visitors. However, other museums that strove to take on an indigenous slant (i.e. NMAI) have been criticized, primarily by a non-Native audience. It will be interesting to see how museum models created by indigenous peoples will be taken/accepted by a white, Western audience…

  4. Yes this its the article I remember! Thanks for posting. I look forward to visiting the Musée some day. Not to diminish this very important discussion but here is another interesting alternative that might rebalance the situation.

  5. Gotta love the Onion!

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