- Museum Catalogue Record: William Morris’s News From Nowhere
Object: The Utopian Museum
Material: William Morris’s News From Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance
The victorian period saw the rise of the museum and the novel as dominant cultural and intellectual forms. Both museums and novels used reason and description to categorize and organize facts and artifacts in order to tell stories, connecting earlier events to the culture and politics of the Victorian period. Novels and museums are, alike, repositories for narrative. In Victorian museum practice, catalogues such as the British Museum’s [End Page 30] Catalogue of Printed Books: Homer (1890) document the provenance, description, and condition of an artifact in constructing a narrative of its history and significance. These categories were codified in museum collection accession practice throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. A similar logic to that which informs the museum catalogue is evident in the structure of the nineteenth-century novel. Here, background information provides a narrative’s history and provenance, build-up utilizes description as a literary technique, the novel’s climax is a complication of that description (as is an artifact’s condition), and its resolution concludes the narrative and assesses the novel’s significance. As Mieke Bal states, “Collecting is an essential human feature that originates in the need to tell stories” (103); the museum and the novel both represent and explore this need.
William Morris’s 1890 novel, News from Nowhere, bears witness to the influence of the museum as a cultural site, as a collection, and as a form of storytelling in Victorian literature. Morris presents his novel, subtitled An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance, as a collection of textual artifacts, in the form of chapters, through which he describes and explores a utopian future. The museum is an important literal and symbolic site in News from Nowhere. It is crucial to the novel’s narrative strategy and utopian function and provides a framework for analyzing it. The museum is also a significant cultural site and narrative metaphor in other late-Victorian utopian and dystopian novels, including H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s New Amazonia (1899). Barbara J. Black’s On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums examines the utopian impulse of Victorian collecting culture and how literature responds to this impulse in its representations of the future. She argues that Morris’s museum in News From Nowhere represents a “social criticism targeted at the future of a society committed to imperialism and industrialism” (168). Instead of being a “guarded national treasury, the museum plays back the history of its own institutional inception” (167).
In this essay, I use the museum catalogue as a form for exploring Morris’s utopian representation of the Victorian period, taking history, provenance, description, condition, and significance as subheadings to structure my analysis. In doing so, I continue this process of self-consciously examining the museum as an object of and subject for narrative and history. Like Morris, I look at the Victorian period, in this case its literature, through the epistemologies of the museum. As a short form of analysis that explores the connection between objects and narratives, and the significance of the past (provenance) in understanding the present (significance), the museum catalogue record is the ideal form for literary analysis that is attentive to the historical, material, and poetic aspects of the Victorian novel.
From the Greek, museum means the “seat of the muses” (Siegel 3); in its modern usage, these muses are material rather than mythic, and the museum [End Page 31] is an institution for the collection, protection, preservation, and exhibition of objects of historical and artistic value (Siegel 3; Maleuvre 9). During the Victorian period, the museum emerged as an object of and a subject for the defining intellectual and cultural activities of collecting, categorization, and exhibition. In the years that have followed, the Victorian period itself has become an object to exhibit in museums, with both institutions and their artifacts functioning as icons of this era.
In 1967, Germaine Bazin described...