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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 43-76

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Radical Conservations:
The Problem with the London Museum

Jordanna Bailkin


When the London Museum opened its doors on March 5, 1912, the idea of the museum-going public underwent a fundamental change. The museum, originally housed in Kensington Palace, was established in 1911 by Liberal M. P. Lewis ("Loulou") Harcourt and Reginald ("Regy") Brett, Viscount Esher, to memorialize the social, domestic, and public life of Londoners past and present. This definition encompassed items from a Roman ship excavated by the London County Council (LCC) and a collection of policeman's buttons to a theatrical museum of playbills and Queen Victoria's "funny little fat shoes." 1 But what really perturbed the journalists and politicians at the opening ceremony was not the range or content of the collections. It was the museum's "abnormal" popularity with the greater London public. 2 While statistics on attendance were strikingly absent, the belief that the London Museum embodied a new nexus between high and low culture—an unprecedented connection between the museological and the masses—was universal in the press during the museum's early years.

As Britain's first concerted attempt at a "folk" museum, 3 the London Museum elevated everyday objects—what James Deetz has referred to as "the small things forgotten" of household life—to prized museum artifacts. 4 As the leading radical newspaper the Star reported, the London Museum "touches intimately [its visitors'] domestic relations, it conjures up vivid pictures of their homes." 5 Private collectors had often played a pivotal role in Britain, where state funding for the arts had been [End Page 43] exceptionally limited. 6 But the press on the London Museum described a new sphere of activity for museum audiences, in which every visitor was also a potential donor. Aristocratic or middle-class patrons were imagined to be displaced by virtual armies of working-class or female Londoners who uncovered bits of pottery and fabric in their attics and backyards. 7

Within this institution devoted to the relics of domestic life, women had important new roles to play as collectors, donors, and visitors. But this expanded role for women within civic culture was neither easily nor universally accepted, due in part to the coincidence of the museum opening and a series of suffragette attacks on art. Certainly, attacks on public works of art operated as part of a larger program of feminist disruption and protest between 1912 and 1914. 8 But these incidents, in which fourteen pictures were slashed and nine women arrested, also reflected a highly specific response to the gender politics of the public gallery: 9 its overvaluation of the female nude and its devaluation of real, as opposed to painted, women. 10 In this context, women visitors to the London Museum were both envisioned as esteemed guardians of household treasures—or individual property—and heavily policed as potential destroyers of public goods.

The two most striking aspects of the museum's opening ceremony were the incredible popularity of the new exhibits and the precautions taken against militant suffragettes. 11 The juxtaposition of popularity and its dangers thus defined the London Museum from its inception. When the museum opened in 1912, the Town Planning Review noted that this institution posed unique curatorial pitfalls. Due to the museum's emphasis on the odds and ends of everyday life,the utility of the exhibits would depend on their meaningful sequence and arrangement, not on the intrinsic value of the objects themselves. 12 The collections could easily veer into the haphazard, the sensationalistic, and the archaic. 13 As the guidebook author Ernest Law put it, this was a collection for citizens, not for connoisseurs. 14

The curatorial anxieties prompted by this experiment with urban "folk" history speak to the larger issues of authenticity, value, and ownership at the heart of museum controversies today—from the Smithsonian's hotly debated Enola Gay exhibition to the Jewish Museum's show, Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, displaying items such as a gift set of brand-named imitation gas canisters and a self-portrait...


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pp. 43-76
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Archived 2004
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