- “In that Bony Light”:The Museum Economy of Our Mutual Friend
You can’t buy flesh and bone in this country, sir; not alive, you can’t.—Mr. Wegg, Our Mutual Friend (1865)
In one of the early chapters of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), Mr. Venus relays Pleasant Riderhood’s damaging pronouncement: she does not “wish … to regard [herself], nor yet [wish] to be regarded, in that bony light” (84). A comic moment in the text, Pleasant’s rejection of Mr. Venus-as-taxidermist/taxonomist both establishes a subplot of thwarted romance and creates another connection through which the large cast of characters can be linked to one another. This scene in Mr. Venus’s shop and the shop’s “general panoramic view” of specimens, relics, and bones (Dickens 81) also introduce a concept that is central to the reading of Our Mutual Friend: the museum.
In ways that can be observed in but that also far exceed Dickens’s novel, the natural history museum1 shaped nineteenth-century discourse and ways of seeing.2 In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the popularization of natural science led to a collecting boom among all classes. By the middle of the century, most materials associated with collecting specimens had become relatively affordable. Increased industrialization made such implements available to even the working classes (Black 22, Merrill 10–12). The 1850s also saw private collections mirrored in the systematic collecting cases of national museums, which showcased native and imperial treasures, contributing to cultural knowledge and representing England’s global prominence and growing affluence all while drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.3
These visitors engaged in a new type of seeing and a new type of reading: a museual literacy. Though most museums provided catalogues or pamphlets, the written descriptions they contained were secondary to the visual messages relayed by the exhibits themselves. Indeed, middle-class Victorians believed that the type of literacy learned within the museum contributed to public education.4 The privileged position of a museual vocabulary in Victorian novels such as Our Mutual Friend is partly explained by the connection between a museual literacy, where one reads for value, and the work done by readers [End Page 177] of the novel.5 This latter type of reading also engages valuing practices and relies on a reader’s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, and worthwhile textual clues from stylistic markers.6
Even for socio-economic classes in which literacy might be low, museums were designed to educate the public in viewing practices shared by museums and novels alike. Offering to provide a rapid education through the act of viewing material culture, museums in working-class neighbourhoods “competed directly with the public house” by remaining open for longer and offering exhibits that would appeal to their specific audience (Black 33).7 Middle-class beliefs suggested that these working-class museum visitors might go on to turn their leisure hours to making their own collections, providing “healthful outdoor exercise” and a “constructive and thoughtful” alternative to perceived lower-class vices such as drinking and gambling (Merrill 37). A museual gaze became part of life in Victorian England for millions of individuals from all classes.8
Despite the middle-class vision of the museum as providing a form of cultural salvation to the lower classes, those exhibit-filled halls were never entirely free of Victorian anxieties. While proponents of museum-guided public education welcomed the opening of museums to wider audiences, the composition of those audiences raised concerns about noise, hygiene, and danger to the exhibits themselves. In response, museums married the civilizing effects of the exhibits to an intense supervision meant to discourage theft, lewd behaviour, and the defacement of the works on display.9 Additional problems arose with discrepancies between the viewers’ level of education and the presentation of the exhibits; curators could no longer assume that all viewers would interpret the exhibits in the same way, as new museum audiences lacked the cultural and educational background that would have helped them to contextualize the exhibits (Fyfe 197–98).
Modern concerns over authenticity, identity, and value (economic and otherwise...