- The Soane after Soane: Housing the Museum
Sir John Soane’s Museum.—This valuable collection was opened yesterday to the public for the season, and during the day there was a great number of visitors. The arrangements are very satisfactory, and the collection is so varied as to gratify every taste. The preminent [sic] object is, of course, the alabaster sarcophagus which the testator obtained from the late Mr. Belzoni for 2,000 guineas. The museum [End Page 11] will continue open every Thursday and Friday in this and the two succeeding months, tickets being obtained on previous application.—Notice in The Times (5 April 1839)
As sir John Soane approached his death in January of 1837, it is possible that he took a modicum of solace from the fact that—four years earlier—he had arranged through an act of Parliament for his remarkable house and its contents to be preserved, unaltered, for the benefit of the public. Trustees would be appointed to allow access “to Amateurs and Students in Painting, Sculpture and Architecture . . . for consulting and inspecting and benefiting by the said collection.”1 Given Soane’s well-known anxiety about his legacy, however, it is more likely that he died with no certainty at all about the fate of the building and the extensive collections it contained, which he had spent much of a lifetime amassing: his museum of architectural fragments and casts, books, models, plans, paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and an eclectic array of curiosities, such as the alabaster sarcophagus (fig. 1). No doubt he would have been delighted by the efforts made in recent years to restore his house and museum to its original state, effectively undoing a long period of if not outright neglect then a slow accumulation of thoughtless alterations on the part of a series of curators and trustees, particularly in the nineteenth century. But while the museum has come back into its own, now enjoying (or perhaps suffering from) long queues of visitors at its gate, its reputation in the Victorian period was openly contested.
Commentary published in the decades following Soane’s death reflects the perception that the institution was uncertain of its identity and purpose, a product perhaps of an uneasy blending of “house” and “museum” (particularly once the house had been stripped of active, living, domestic purpose)—at a moment, historically, when museums were increasingly becoming the very things (public, rational, orderly) that Soane’s had never been. The dominant narrative, certainly, is that the museum fell quickly out of step with the times (with which, arguably, it had never really been in step).2 To some extent, its eccentricities derive from the stamp of its owner’s personality, evident in the museum’s highly subjective and theatrical arrangements, often involving imaginative rather than rational juxtapositions presented in artfully contrived architectural spaces. The result was not universally admired; visiting in 1838, Gustav Friedrich Waagen remarked that “the whole, notwithstanding the picturesque, fantastic charm, which cannot be denied, has, in consequence of this arbitrary mixture of heterogeneous objects, something of the unpleasant effect of a feverish dream” (33). Over time, the principles guiding Soane’s work as an architect also fell out of favour—and his reputation declined—to the point where William Burges declared the museum in 1863 to be a “very useless institution” (qtd. in Knox 37). [End Page 12]
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Another factor to consider with respect to the museum’s identity crisis after Soane’s death is underscored by a detailed account of the house offered, later in the year of Soane’s death, in the Monthly Supplement of the Penny Magazine—namely, its essential character as a private house: “To admit the public indiscriminately into a small private house, in the same way as they are admitted into the British Museum, or any other national depository of art, would not only be incurring risk of loss and damage, or at least of great deterioration, but would be defeating the uses...