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Photojournalism and the Origins of the French Writer House Museum (1881–1914): Privacy, Publicity, and Personality by Elizabeth Emery (review)
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Elizabeth Emery’s study of the writer’s house museum in France offers a complex and detailed investigation into the creation and establishment not just of this museum type, but of early ideas of celebrity culture in France. Rather than a plotted history of these museums, Emery offers a much more challenging and thoughtful examination that looks at specific interpretive frameworks that shifted during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century such as the concept of the writer, the craft of writing and the different methods of reading personality in décor, photography and objects. She charts how in France this diverse range of influences rapidly resulted in recognition that writers’ houses could be a valuable part of understanding authors’ written work and thus became worthy of preservation.

Emery unpacks a history of the writers’ house museum as a site of cultural memory that reveals the numerous stakeholders who vied for position and how they used the writer’s home to create a public image of the author. Her study shifts from the home as a site of identity formation where she draws on Edmond de Goncourt’s extraordinary narrative about his home (1881) to demonstrate how decoration was increasingly seen in the nineteenth century as an important point of individual expression (chapter one—La Maison d’un artiste: The Writer’s Home as Self-Portrait). Emery then moves on to articulate how writers and the press used the space of the home as a setting to present and characterize the author, and how in these contexts the intimate space of the home was sometimes used to express creative genius.

Central to her discussion is the idea of the “at home photo-interview,” a format that during the period became increasingly complex. Emery investigates how this style of interview developed from short text articles, often based on scant fact, into multi-page photographic essays “documenting” the home life of an author. This history is an intriguing aspect of early celebrity culture and has dramatic parallels with today and the role of the media in revealing/marketing private lives.

Emery’s study outlines the modern challenges authors faced to control their image, while wrestling with the nature of the press interview, and trying to balance the need for publicity and privacy (chapter four—Home Life as Fiction: Photo-Interviews as Narrative Acts). A fascinating aspect of Emery’s research articulates how it was not just the décor of the home that was scientifically studied for meaning, but the very body of the authors themselves (chapter three—From Home to Habitat: Bricabracomania and la Nouvelle Psychologie). Equally captivating is how authors, just like criminals and deviants, were subjected to “scientific” study to help to define and characterize ideas of genius.

Although the writer’s house museum was a comparatively late arrival in France, it was taken up with enthusiasm and there are now over 200 throughout the country. The challenge with this museum type, like all house museums, is that it offers an artificial sense of a past and a controlled glimpse into the private lives of individuals. They are carefully curated spaces—the “snapshot” of the past often completely falsified as an ideal created long after the death of the inhabitant. Yet they do offer a view into private lives and for writers they can foster a sense of intimacy in the visitors and inspire, hopefully, a similar engagement with their written works. As Emery asserts these museums are not just museums of lives, but sites that celebrate the author’s œuvre and foster study, research and education (particularly as they are often combined with archives). As such, they help to cement the legacy of the writer and his or her position in wider ideas of importance.

Emery’s work is groundbreaking for its scholarly focus on the historical context and formation of these museums. It makes for an absorbing read and should inspire us not only to revisit writer museums as sites that celebrated writers’ lives, but also, more importantly, as sites for critical study.

Copyright © 2013 University of Nebraska Press
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Chiara O’Reilly. "Photojournalism and the Origins of the French...

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