On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums.
Opening this wonderful book is like entering one of the museums, stuffed with bizarrely compelling artefacts, that are its subject. Within the first ten pages of Chapter 1 alone, Barbara Black takes us to dinner in the belly of a thirty-five-foot-long model Iguanodon, entertains us with a twenty-four-piece orchestra in the literally named Whale-bone Lounge constructed within the skeleton of a vast whale, and invites us to explore the interior of James Wyld's massive model of the globe on a journey at once to the centre of the earth and to its farthest reaches. Even this small sample of the treasures on exhibit in her absorbing study suggests the particular historical contexts within which museum culture flourished in the nineteenth century, which included the Victorian scientific enterprise (both its discoveries and its epistemological and methodological assumptions), British imperialism (both its spoils and its ideology), and the technological revolution that made such feats of manufacture and reproduction possible. This is a book that looks at the Victorian museum for what it tells us about the ideological workings of nineteenth-century British culture and society, through the examination of not only such relatively obscure emblems of contemporary preoccupations, but also more central icons of the Victorians' passion for collecting and exhibition, such as Sir John Soane's Museum, the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, and the Great Exhibition itself.
It is, of course, easy to make fun of a culture that would dream up the idea of a Whale-bone Lounge, and Black's account of some of the more outlandish and grotesque examples of Victorian taste is by no means humourless. She writes with a light touch about the museum's relation to kitsch and image culture, in a style that is always engaging and readable. However, the papier-mache divans, reconstructed exotica, and simulated Sphinx are evoked not gratuitously, but in the service of a serious and rigorous theoretical interrogation of the taxonomies and ideologies that shaped such repositories of material culture as the Crystal Palace. Moreover, in them she finds evidence for revising Baudrillard's temporal location of the age of the simulacrum in the twentieth century, arguing that `the age of the museum's birth, when panoramas could be found even inside cigarette papers, is the true age of the emergent hyperreal' (p. 37).
This is genuinely interdisciplinary work that seeks to understand the complex and suggestive connections between literary texts (such as FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Jane Eyre, Our Mutual Friend, and Middlemarch), Victorian museum culture, and key contemporary social, political, and cultural events and ideologies. In seeking to illuminate the Victorians' own methods of categorization, Black dismantles the binaries that so often bedevil modern analyses of the nineteenth century, unsettling distinctions between high art and popular culture, and insisting upon the imbrication of literary texts in the same historical circumstances that produced their spectacular and defining museological projects. Thus the Rubaiyat, it is contended, `in its status as both translation and collected text, illustrates the fate of the acquisition in Victorian museum culture', at the same time as it stands as `one of the age's most vivid examples of the domesticated exotic'; while FitzGerald himself, `in his self-professed violent co-optation of the Oriental, [...] offers a case study of the Victorian collector that illuminates the activities of the nineteenth-century collecting populace at large' (pp. 49-50). Drawing on Said, she argues that FitzGerald `Orientalized' the Oriental in a way that effectively demonstrates just how right she is to identify the nineteenth century, `the first age of museumification' (p. 38), as the beginning of the age of simulation.
This is an important, immensely learned and intellectually adventurous guide to the Victorian museum and its cultural meanings, illuminating the dusty corners of those edifices to collecting and the curiosities they house in ways that will make us see Victorian things to which we have become dulled by familiarity with fresh eyes.
HILARY FRASER UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA