Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Building an Empire, Silver Dish by Silver Dish

September 14, 2010 · 3 Comments

We’ve already talked about the elitism that we’ve seen in museums such as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and I’m sure that everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the debate over the Elgin Marbles. (If not, Stephenie wrote a small book about it a few days ago, so just keep scrolling down the page.) I don’t want to beat the imperialism theme over the head too much, so I’ll try to take a different angle here. What has struck me about so many of the museums that we’ve visited has been the vast collections of stuff housed within their walls. Isn’t this the point of musuems? you might ask. Well, yes. But I feel like the size of the collections and the way that they are displayed here just screams “materialism” more loudly than any museum that I’ve visited previously.

Apart from the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum is the best example of this. The array of exhibits in this museum is incredible–everything from fashion to theatre, jewelry, micromosaics, sculpture, medieval art, and every silver dish ever manufactured in the British Empire. Wandering through (the floor plan made absolutely no sense to me, so I just walked around), my eyes started to glaze over because of the sheer number of artifacts displayed. In the silver rooms, for instance, there were cases packed so tightly with pieces that there was not enough room for display cards; interested viewers had to pick up a card that was chained to the outside of the case. And underneath all of these cases, which took up a pretty substantial area, were drawers full of more pieces that didn’t fit in the displays. It was insane. The V&A had some amazing pieces, but the opulence and materialism on display there were astounding.

Although some of the other museums that I visited were much smaller and were actually house museums, I noticed this same glorification of materialism. The Sir John Soane Museum is a wonderfully eccentric home that Soane, a nineteenth-century architect, designed specifically to hold his collection of artifacts and his “cabinet of curiosities.” It’s really neat to walk through and see all of the peices that he has hiding in the nooks and crannies of his home (one room has extendable walls that fold out from the permanent walls. There are currently sketches by J.M.W. Turner that are displayed on these hidden walls). His collection includes several pieces of Greek and Roman statues, wonderful works of art by Hogarth and Canaletto, and even an Egyptian sarcophagus. But again, I got the sense that there were just so many things packed into such a small space. And I had to wonder, like Stephenie, how he came by all of these treasures and why he needed a room full of Roman busts. It seemed as though he had collected all of these things simply because he could. Thankfully he had the foresight to turn his home into a museum so that his collection would be accessible to the public to come and learn from it, but the thought still lingered.  The Wallace Collection left a similar feeling, although a large portion of the collection housed there comes from other parts of Europe.

I firmly believe that these huge, opulent collections are only possible because of Britain’s imperial past. They had access to so much of the world, and they had the power and the weapons to take artifacts from all of these places (even if the Elgin Marbles were supposedly sold legally). As the strongest nation of the nineteenth century, Britain was able to amass all of the silver found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and all of the pieces of sculpture housed in the Soane. The money was there and the artifacts were ripe for the taking, so materialism (and I think fascination with exotic cultures, especially with the Orient) naturally followed. I’m not trying to say that this is right or wrong, and Americans as a whole definitely value the consumer and material wealth. It’s just what has really struck me from the museums that I’ve visited.

Categories: 2010 Holly · Museums
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   bowmanc // Sep 14th 2010 at 17:00

    I do certainly agree that the opulence of Imperial Britain is embodied in the extravagant museums. However, I would’ve liked to see some criticism of this depleting of their colonies of the riches and all. I think it’s really unfortunate that the British felt it was okay to strip these nations of their treasures, much less keep them stored up in their own museums. It seems to be quite a debate to this day (with the Elgin marbles, for instance), and one that should end, in my opinion, with England returning each countries’ respective goods.

  •   stepheniem // Sep 14th 2010 at 17:37

    I agree that it would be nice to see some objects to return to their country of origin, but I do not think that it will happen partly because of English laws, the fear of establishing precedent, and because the inability of some places to take care of their treasures. I’m not sure the risk of encountering harm is worth it to send objects back, especially the most fragile ones.

  •   hollymb // Sep 14th 2010 at 18:35

    I’m inclined to agree, Chris, and I definitely wasn’t trying to let the imperial Brits off the hook for taking so many artifacts at will. Stephenie also makes a good point, though, that many of those objects might not be here today were it not for Lord Elgin and his contemporaries. Will Britain ever return the Parthenon marbles or their Ancient Egyptian artifacts? I’m guessing not, even if those countries are now better equipped to look after those items. I don’t know what kinds of programs are in place right now between international museums, but I hope that people from the British Museum and other “imperialist” museums will work with other, less developed museum programs to help them improve their facilities and practices.

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