Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Two of These Things are Not Like the Others

September 4, 2009 · 1 Comment

It would be easy to provide a thoughtful, all-encompassing understanding of museums in London. I have tried to give some idea of the sprawling elegance of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, the comparative edge provided by the Tate Modern, and the gaping expanse filled by the British Museum. All inspire and churn the mind (or stomach) in different ways. Yet it would be foolhardy to say you can provide an “easy” nor “all-encompassing” understanding of museums in London (not that anyone has, necessarily). A double-threat stands in your way—The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

I walked away from both of these buildings baffled. It took much effort not to dismiss the V&A as immediately nonsensical, so I settled on “eclectic” as the best way to describe it. The V&A has been described in previous posts as an enjoyable hodgepodge of items without ties to anything distinctly British and breaking from any sort of natural organization. I agree with these perceptions of the museum, though it did, admittedly, take some time for me to reach this conclusion. I enjoyed the individual displays, but I got caught up with the confusing flow of the individual displays and the building as a whole. The display dedicated to Japan, for instance, did not contain a natural progression of Japanese art; a piece of art from the 21st century rested in the same case as centuries-old clothing. How does this make sense? Is the purpose to jolt the accepted model for museums? I have asked others and myself these questions and have come to appreciate the fresh perspective held by the V&A. It purposefully provides a jolt, but it takes varying amounts of time to recover, reflect, and, ultimately, revisit.

That in mind, I have yet to recover from the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

The history of the museum gives some indication of what to expect from the famed architect Sir John Soane and his conversion of his home into a museum in the 19th century. The collection was impressive in size and range – sculptures, paintings, books, furniture, pottery, figurines, etc. Once again, I appreciated the attention paid to detail in the cataloguing and presentation of the items, but I got caught up with the following questions: Why is this here? Why is this important? Who would benefit from this? I did not learn very much from the museum. (This does not include my sudden, pressing need to redefine my understanding of the word “museum”.) Granted, this may have been a result of the ‘jolt’ provided by walls lined with statues and other artifacts with little to no descriptors. Accustomed to the museum model that gave you some indication of what you viewed, I never took the initiative to ask more about the items lining every square inch of the walls. (I should mention here that the V&A did maintain this model.)

So, I try to assign a new word to describe this outlier of sorts. ‘Eclectic’ cannot apply to this museum, for a common theme of antiquity and classicism prevailed despite the range of the items. ‘Nonsensical’ does not apply either, for Soane had a set purpose in designing the museum for students (the education portion of the museum continues to this day).

For now, I will settle on ‘unusual’ and ‘out of place’ as ways to show Soane’s Museum as an outlier that expands the range of museums in London. The V&A did fall into this category when taken at face value. Perhaps I will come to the same conclusions when reflecting on Soane’s Museum.

Moreover, I hope to come to some conclusions about what each museum has to say about one’s British identity/identity in London, whether or not that is the museum’s immediate goal. This is a question that I have seen in previous posts but I have not been able to answer. I welcome your thoughts on either of these museums or your ideas on the role played by museums in shaping identity (if you’ve begun to formulate them…I cannot get my head around it just yet).

Categories: Brandon
Tagged: , , ,

1 response so far ↓

You must log in to post a comment.