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Wide Angle 18.3 (1996) 53-84

'Journeys for Those Who Can Not Travel':
Promenade Cinema and the Museum Life Group

Alison Griffiths


An ideal museum is a mute school, a speechless university, a voiceless pulpit...every specimen, every exhibition, every well-arranged hall speaks for itself. In this sense, in its appeal to the eye, in its journeys for those who can not travel, the museum is not the rival, but the helpful alley of all the spoken methods of instruction within its own walls and throughout the great city.

Henry Fairfield Osborne, 1910. 1


IMAGE LINK= Cinema's roots in the rich popular and scientific cultures of the nineteenth century have recently attracted the attention of a number of film scholars. 2 One particularly productive site for historical and theoretical investigation is the nineteenth-century museum of natural history, since this institution negotiated the competing claims of scientific education, moral, and civic uplift, and an expansionist national identity, with the pleasure of popular visual spectacle. [End Page 53] Nineteenth-century museums of natural history represented a contested terrain of paternalistic economic and political elites, the newly-assertive academic discipline of anthropology, and the vast new urban working- and middle-class populations in search of popular amusements and spectacle. Within the natural history museum, the ascendency of the life group as a popular form of museological display in the late nineteenth century coincided with the emergence of cinema, an apparatical system that shared a number of phenomenological features with the illusionistic museum exhibit. Like the life group--the arrangement of costumed mannequins in dramatic tableaux--motion pictures constructed what Anne Friedberg has called "a virtual, mobilized gaze," by means of which the spectator would travel through an imaginary spatial and temporal "elsewhere" and "elsewhen." 3 I argue in this essay that the spatial organization of life groups within nineteenth-century museums of natural history can be read as a form of "promenade cinema," analogous to a theatrical form with roots in the middle ages, in which spectators moved between spatially-distinct dramatized scenes. 4 In this constellation, the spectator's navigation of the museum's halls and display cases was regulated as a form of "organized walking" in which "an intended message [was] communicated in the form of a (more or less) directed itinerary." 5 Moreover, in their representation of human culture in the form of simulacral models displayed before illusionistically-painted dioramas, the vistas of the life group afforded the museum-flaneur a visual pleasure similar to that offered by the gaze of early ethnographic film.

The life group's facilitation of the mobilized gaze of film spectatorship within the architectural space of the museum provoked ontological tensions between scientific veracity and aestheticized representation, tensions that have continued to shape the discursive and epistemological terrain of visual anthropology. These tensions are prefigured in a range of popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century precinematic entertainments and anticipated the ways in which the status of cinema within anthropology would be debated at the turn of the twentieth century. 6 Moving pictures and the life group shared an uncanny and potentially unsettling mimetic quality, and were both associated with vulgar nineteenth-century popular amusements; in the context of the museum, they threatened to upset the institution's careful balance between audience appeal and scientific veracity. [End Page 54]

I begin this essay with an examination of the topography of the natural history museum and how the spectator's voyage through the corridors and past the life group exhibits involved a physical and virtual mobility that was both similar to and different from the experience of cinema. This discussion is followed by an analysis of responses to the human wax figure at Charles Wilson Peale's eighteenth-century Philadelphia Museum and to the emergence of nineteenth-century life groups at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City.

Virtual Travel in the Museum: Precinematic Itineraries of Sight and Knowledge

[I]f we can make the pleasure of our people consist in the delights of art, in the beauties of literature...

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