Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

A Closer Look at Museums/Notting Hill Carnival

August 30, 2009 · 3 Comments

Something that’s unexpectedly been a big part of my experience so far has been the chance to look at museums from a broader perspective. Recently, I’ve been averaging about one museum a day, and while I’ve enjoyed all of them at least to some degree on a “these are interesting things to look at” level, what I’ve really had a chance to do for the first time is think about museums from a comparative perspective and critically think about narratives and curation. For example:

What purpose does the Victoria and Albert Museum serve? Does it have an overall theme? Should it have one?

For More on the V&A, read Grace/Kelley’s post from yesterday. I too got a disjointed vibe from the place, but also felt it was quite pleasant. The Museum bills itself as “the world’s greatest museum of art and design”, and while all of the museum’s contents vaguely fit in those two categories, that doesn’t really do the institution justice.

A basic exhibit on fashion led to giant Raphael cartoons, which we followed with Iranian and East Asian cultural artifacts and a room so full of medieval sculpture, I thought they might all topple over like dominoes if I were to trip over one. Upstairs we found metallurgy, miniature paintings, and a vague exhibit about modern design. At face value, the V&A looks like leftovers from the rest of London’s great museums thrown together, and yet we all learned things and generally had a good time. In this case, the V&A didn’t need an overarching theme or narrative for its contents to interest us, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone who’d seen a lot of the other great London museums and was looking for something new.

Here's a cool theme idea: The V&A: Heads Will Roll

Here's a cool theme idea. The V&A: Heads Will Roll

Secondly, does the British Museum need to make itself less stuffy?

I took another shot at finishing the BM today (maybe next time). One thing I noticed the second time around was that a conscious effort is being made by the Museum to reorganize some of itself along thematic rather than geographic lines. One smaller exhibit Henry, Brandon and I all liked dealt with living with death from a broad and cross-cultural perspective. A sign we caught before we left implied more of these types of exhibits were soon to come. So, what does it mean that after depending on a geographic display of its vast collection with a few special exhibits for its entire history (which the National Gallery and the V&A to some extent do as well), the British Museum has decided to start to make changes. I don’t really know why they are now (anyone have a guess?), but I think I approve.

Finally, I thought I should add some thoughts about the Notting Hill Carnival today. Rather than picking up a two pint bottle of Strongbow and joining in on the fun I thought I’d use the opportunity to take some mental field notes on Londoners and public events in Britain. Here are a few of the many reasons the Carnival could not have taken place in the States:

– No American event would allow outside alcohol and alcohol vendors when it’s just as easy to close the place off and jack up the price
– Americans hate thinking about trash, and certainly don’t want to see it or think about how much they create. Rubbish bins are few and far between, so this is not possible at the Carnival
– I find it hard to picture one of the wealthiest parts of an American city allowing itself to be opened up to the masses for two days of drinking and very loud music. I got the sense that some locals were elsewhere or were fortified in their flats, but most had joined in at their windows or in the streets.

People who also went: if you disagree or can think of another reason, put it in the comments.

Categories: Aidan
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   kstaab77 // Aug 30th 2009 at 17:05

    Aidan, I agree with you on your point about Americans not allowing the trash to heap up in such an artistic way as it happened at the carnival. However, it does make sense that they did not have very many litter bins. The carnival is a potential target for anyone wanting to potentially cause harm to large numbers of people, both English and tourists. Rubbish bins are a security risk because it would be so easy for someone to plant something in them. From that standpoint, I find it curious that so many American festivals have these targets just lying about!

  •   hankreas12 // Aug 30th 2009 at 17:39

    In America there would be a countless number of restrictions that would completely change the atmosphere of a festival like this. To give one example the people that were using their home as a public bathroom for everyone and charging them for it would never fly in the states.

    The other thing I was wondering the entire time is how exactly did “family day” play a role into today’s festivities? After observing the atmosphere that was present today I can’t even imagine the chaos tomorrow will bring.


  •   schaefau // Aug 30th 2009 at 17:58

    I hadn’t noticed that the British Museum was planning on rearranging its displays. This is quite interesting! I would be interested in learning what kind of themes they would be splitting everything into. Religion, gender issues, race issues? Something like that? Anyway, that would be an interesting way to examine how the British Museum might reflect the British persona.

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