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The Strange Charisma of Victorian Museums

11 June 2013: The other day I overheard two twenty-somethings enthusing about Victorian museums.  It seems that what they love are the dark wooden showcases, the green baize that you draw over the glass to protect the artefacts from the light, and the labels with their copperplate handwriting.    Having spent ten years of my adult life making contemporary museums, this is a disconcerting conversation.

So the standard way the debate usually goes about old and new museums is to point out that, despite appearances to the contrary, museums are not eternal – they change and always have done, and not only in the way they look but in the stories that they tell.  Before Victorian museums there were Cabinets of Curiosities – until they were swept away.  And likewise in the second half of the twentieth century there came the great unpicking of the imperial, colonial story.  And after that came post-structuralism which toppled the single narrative and put in its place a multiplicity of stories and viewpoints.  Nothing stays the same, and museums least of all.  Added to this you may say that the Victorian showcases are leaky and never at the right height for children.

All of which is true. And yet, despite myself, I am disconcerted and so I take myself off to one of the last remaining, untouched Victorian museums.

Which is how it is that I am on the Isle of Wight in a corner of the vast estate of Osborne House, on a day when the sky is like thunder and the grass that dizzying green of early summer. This was Queen Victoria’s favourite holiday house and here, in one corner of it, she and Albert created a children’s world where the royal children could learn to cook, dig in their allotments and think, by means of a small museum that they created with their father.  It was an idyllic childhood – better by and large than what came afterwards – and long after they had gone, the museum survived, more or less untouched.

Now it sits in what looks like a Victorian Swiss chalet.  There is a black, cast-iron stove in the middle of the room, striped cotton blinds pulled down against the light, and dark wooden showcases stuffed to the gills with trays of butterflies with wings of lace and silk; stones of every kind, each with its own handwritten label, and arranged with taxonomic beauty; the jaws of a shark, gaping wildly; classical figurines; lekythoi vases; North American beads and slippers – the list goes on and on.  Outside is a green world, full of birdsong.  Inside there’s not much explanation of what you are looking at, but then back in the 19th century you wouldn’t have needed any.  A small royal child would have been on hand to show you around and tell you what you didn’t know.

Once upon a time, I think, there were lots of museums like this but then the world changed and now there are only a few and their absolute strangeness sings out.  I can see why the twenty-somethings like them. They have become historical objects in their own right, and are not so much about learning as about time travel and atmosphere.

It is not often that the past comes back to us, unmediated, unframed and unexplained, and there are parts of this museum that startle me even now – such as the Victorian habit of shooting everything that moved. But still there are things about it I like enormously.  I like their seriousness and their earnest desire to ‘think the world’.  I like the way they try to categorise the world but don’t quite manage it – next to the sections on Antiquities and Natural History is one dedicated to Souvenirs.  And I like the way that the labels are not so much captions as short stories.

‘Two brooches of Fish Bone,’ I read,  ‘carved by Mr. Reid at Cleveden, Bucks, and presented to Queen Victoria by the Duke of Westminster.’

‘Copper Ore from Burra Burra Mine, S Australia.  Presented to Queen Victoria by Capt. Charles Stewart, FRGS. The discoverer of that province and first navigator of the Murray River.’

‘Jaws of a shark caught by their Royal Highnesses, Princes Edward and George, when onboard HMS Bacchante, 1880.’

‘A favourite Bullfinch, belonging to HRH Prince Albert, brought from Wernershausen in Meiningen, September 1840, died at Buckingham Palace, June 1843.’

‘Bulgarian children’s costumes, as worn by two little boys saved at Kustendjeh by Capt. Hyde Parker, 1854.’

(Later, when I describe all this to the twenty-somethings, they say in delighted disbelief, ‘Is it true?  Isn’t it an art installation?”  ‘No,’ I say, ‘it’s absolutely true.’)

Afterwards I go out into the gardens where they are still tending the allotments that the royal children once looked after, and it occurs to me that maybe these Victorian museums are now folk art and that we should no more unpick them than we would censor a Victorian novel or paint over a Victorian sign.

Illustrations by Isabel Greenberg;  photograph of the garden at Swiss Cottage