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The Museum Period Room at the V&A Exercise 3.3.1 A844

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The Museum Period Room at the V&A Exercise 3.3.1 A844

To consider some of the shifting ideas and challenges involved in the display of the eighteenth-century interior in the museum, now read a short article by Julius Bryant, ‘Curating the Georgian interior: from period room to marketplace?’ (2007). It comes from a special issue of the Journal of Design History: ‘Eighteenth-century interiors, redesigning the Georgian’.

As you read, note down what Bryant sees as the key questions about the status of eighteenth century interiors as a resource for curators and historians.

Bryant states all of these questions on p.345 col.1:

·       Is the value of such installations in museums rising or falling?

o   The value of the original pre-21stC installations are falling. They are exhibits presented at full size but to the eye only via the use of a missing 4th wall. They give restricted non-touch, non-contact access to people with no access to the life of elites whilst naturalising and normalising those divides illustrated. Herein the lower classes see elite decoration, furnishings and staging of objects from a limited and distant perspective.

·       Do changes that occur in 2001 reflect wider changes in museum curation?

o   The new installations though using similar installations, invited spectation of the rooms from within. The 4th wall is restored and we enter through a door. Features then of rooms as experienced everyday, if in unfamiliar sizes and grandeur, are experienced a being used by the spectator/experiencer. The latter finds tasks and information within the room rendering them participants in learning (of finding what exists though not creating new knowledge) rather than passive recipients thereof. This reflects the role of curation as an arranger of experiences.

o   The prevailing values remain those of nascent capitalism and the adoration of fetishes, such as elite objects of manufacture and consumption – Wdgewood pottery, Adam furniture etc.

·       Does the management of such installations raise the potential of further curatorial innovations.

o   It remains in the control of the curatorial team and does not involve participants other than in allowing them to access already stored knowledge. We do not learn more about how rooms and interiors function to normalise inequality and conformity to norms within the elites represented.

o   If access is to be more democratic and egalitarian, then the function of such segregated interiors needs to become knowable – in terms say of the role of servants and service functions, the means of separation from the marginalised, whether in terms of class, gender, disability, ‘race’ and sexuality or powerful norms that exclude unrecognised liminal non-categorised experience.

o   It still retains the aura of objects, access to which remains largely visual – the varnishing of a fireplace caryatid by Grant for instance.

o   In my view, it does not allow equal conceptual access to the sense of alternative ‘interiorities’. However it also needs to allow the viewer not to minimise the pastness of the past.

Discussion from text

‘The Georgian’ formed the largest section of the V&A’s ‘English Primary Galleries’ (opened in 1951), which Bryant compares to a giant doll’s house made up of a series of stage sets. The period rooms were laid out chronologically and stylistically, based around what he describes as household names, including a collector, LordBurlington, the architect Robert Adam and tradesmen who supplied the elite: Thomas Chippendale and Josiah Wedgwood. Bryant notes some drawbacks in the presentation, since although presented as an enfilade, many of the rooms in fact came from town houses and were assembled by dealers in the early twentieth century.

With the reopening of the V&A’s British Galleries in 2001, new interpretations were adopted by curators, albeit still following a chronology of styles ending in 1900 and conceived around the concerns of the 1990s when the galleries were planned. Although the galleries were still rooted in elite consumption, the period room from Henrietta Street was included to provide a focus on more middling consumerism.

The model of the doll’s house viewed through a missing wall was also abandoned, in favour of reconstructed fourth walls allowing visitors to enter through doorways and the use of what Bryant calls ‘historically appropriate new flooring, colour schemes, curtains and chair covers’. Other parts of period rooms were displayed as what he calls ‘authentic fragments’, such as the section of the British Galleries showing interiors by Adam, an approach that has been adopted more recently by the Bowes Museum in County Durham.

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