Museums and other lives

Museums are getting increasingly self-conscious about the artificialities they embody. Even if they can stave off the claim that objects collected through wealth and conquest ought to be sent home again they are showing more recognition that taking things from their original settings destroys an important part of their meaning.

Generations less well-travelled than ours may not have felt so strongly about this loss, but now that there is a country house open round every corner and it is possible to take a weekend in Venice like going to the sea for the day, it is much harder to return to the contrived world of the museum – furniture divorced from the rooms it once filled, church art shown with none of the liturgy for which it was made, and machines standing silent under glass. Sophisticated display and labelling, however well intentioned, often seems to come between the object and viewer to heighten the unnatural effect yet more.

One way out of this dilemma is to reverse the process: instead of removing objects to a museum hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, take the museum to the objects. The extraordinary proliferation of museums over the last two decades has consisted largely of ones explaining objects in their original settings – working mills, mines you can go down and maritime museums with half their ships still ready to sail. The model of this kind is the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, which for inventiveness and attention-seeking has been setting the pace for seventeen years, first under Neil Cossons and now under Stuart Smith. Having watched its progress over the last few years I now sense that the strain of being leader in the field is beginning to show. In search of yet more innovation it is pushing the idea of the museum one stage further. In one area it seems to be taking the contrivance of its predecessors and inflating it ten times over by creating a separate, museum-made environment.

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