Borders in the Long 19th Century

On Friday 13th January I attended a fantastic conference at Loughborough University. The conference was a joint venture between MIVSS (Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar) and MRS (Midlands Romantic Seminar) and was entitled 'Borders in the Long 19th Century'.

There were six great papers and lots of stimulating discussion about all kinds of borders; physical, social, theoretical and literary, but the paper I was particularly excited to hear was Dr. Kate Hill of the University of Lincoln talking on 'Romantic and Victorian Collecting: Continuity and Change'. Kate's paper sought to explore and question the validity of the differentiation in academic discourse between 'Romantic' collecting, which seeks to invoke curiosity and wonder through the bringing together of disparate and incongruous items, and 'Victorian' collecting, which seeks to demarcate individual objects from others through classification and taxonomic practices which note distinction and divergence. These two categories of collections seem to have different ends in mind; Romantic collections suggest spectacle and wonder, whilst so-called Victorian models are instructive.

I wonder if these two categories are mutually exclusive, and I should credit my new friend and colleague Megan Leyland (on Twitter here) with the observation that collections can work on different levels simultaneously. Take, for instance, the permanent exhibition 'Medicine Man' at the Wellcome collection, which I recently visited for an event about Miniatures (more on that in a post to follow). The display principles of the collection are such that object narratives are hidden, either behind a panel or drawer which must be opened, or in a leaflet which must be picked up. The objects will yield their secrets only if probed. Four glass cases house various objects on a theme, their uses sometimes apparent and sometimes obscure, and the location of the object narratives, a few steps away from the case and hidden behind a panel, encourages the visitor to appreciate the objects aesthetically, specualte as to their composition, origin, and use, and make comparisons, before reading the museum desciptions, if they choose to. Thus the museum simultaneously promotes curiosity and wonder alongside instruction and education. The below image shows a display of masks, with the hinges of the explanatory panel just about visible through the glass on the far right of the picture.

Image credit: Rama Knight/Wellcome Images
Personally, I found this way of exhibiting objects really illuminating. Being a naturally curious person, I wanted to read the descriptions of objects, and I couldn't bear not knowing what things were, so I opened each panel and drawer, and picked up every leaflet. However, the distancing of the objects and their narratives meant that rather than having this desire for facts immediately sated, I was forced to examine objects more closely and form my own aesthetic judgements. Once the panels had revealed the object histories, I found myself reflecting on the judgments I had made and my interactions with each object, whether I had pored over it in some detail or dismissed it almost instantly. I came to ask myself; why am I drawn to these particular objects? What is it about that mask that fascinates me, while its neighbour inspires only revulsion?

Kate talked about Henry Wellcome's collection in its original public form, the Historical Medical Museum, as an example of how a collection which set out to educate actually managed to inspire horror and gruesome excitement in its visitors. It's pleasing to think that Wellcome's objects continue to challenge the classificatory boundaries imposed on them by scholarship in their 21st century museum setting.