Visiting the Empire at the Provincial Museum, 1900-1950
In: Longair, Sarah and McAleer, John, eds.
Curating Empire: Museums and the British Imperial Experience.
Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, pp. 37-55.
By the first half of the twentieth century, vast numbers of the UK’s towns and cities had formed their own municipal museums and their collections had swelled with non-European material culture sourced from across the world. Such institutions provided a British public with a unique medium through which to comprehend and appropriate their Empire and its peoples, but what were the messages that provincial museums conveyed, and how where they received by local audiences? What was the relationship between intended meaning and the popular understanding inspired by these displays?
Critiquing Foucauldian assumptions about the pervasive nature of curatorial control of audience reception, this chapter explores the practicalities of displaying and visiting municipal displays of ethnography. It exposes the problems of under funding, overcrowding and lack of specialist knowledge which dogged some curatorial attempts to present coherent, comprehensive, ‘scientific’ messages for their visitors and argues that publics formed individual responses to cultural heritage, sometimes rejecting official interpretation and drawing upon wider cultural references and experiences. Juxtaposing curatorial reports with media accounts, it is argued that museum audiences, faced with the displays and interpretation produced under such circumstances, struggled to engage with curatorial intent, instead drawing on their own experiences of Empire that had been formed away from the museum in more informal, sociable and peopled circumstances.
Research into the reactions of museum visitors of the past is notoriously difficult. Given the paucity of literature which has attempted to document or engage with the thoughts and responses of the historic museum visitor, this chapter analyses a range of potential methodologies and explicitly advocates the merits of placing museum-visiting in a wider context of public cultural production and consumption. By sourcing commentaries on other cultural proceedings away from the museum – the missionary fair, the charity bazaar, the theatre and the public lecture – a comparative picture or ‘contextual shadow’ can be built and used to inform our understanding of public notions of museum-going.
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