- It's Alive!: "Frankenstein" at 200
At first, you wouldn't know you had entered It's Alive!: "Frankenstein" at 200—that is, if not for the two enormous banners hanging in what otherwise looks like a relatively unassuming salon in J. Pierpont Morgan's former residence in Manhattan. Respectively, these banners provide an overview of the exhibit's aspirations and the text at hand: unsurprisingly, one banner explains the exhibit's arc from the contexts of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus(1818, 1831) to its theatrical and cinematic afterlives; the other tersely summarizes the novel's plot. ("Victor dies," for example.) For my own part, though, I found myself most taken with the room. Two darkened pathways lay before me: Do I turn left and, as it turned out, be led through a tightly controlled maze of paintings and artifacts evoking the Gothic and its parodies, Enlightenment scientific innovations, and Mary Shelley's familial and literary backgrounds? Do I turn right and enter a comparatively airy space designed to showcase one of the exhibit's most heavily advertised pieces: a pristine, six-sheet poster for James Whale's Frankenstein(1931)? Or, as I wound up doing for nearly ten minutes, do I linger in this odd salon? I debated whether to sit on one of two opposing sofas as I admired the room's wrought-iron ceiling and marble floor, wondering why I was not being told what to do. But I cannot help but think that the curators had chosen not to guide overtly its visitors on purpose. There was a pleasure in scanning the room, dwelling in uncertainty, wondering if I had missed something. And I had. It was at that point that I spied what captured the spirit of the exhibit: Richard Rothwell's well-known portrait of Mary Shelley (ca. 1840), coyly draped with drawn velvet curtains as if to introduce us afresh to the deeply familiar.
The exhibit is not so much a reintroduction to Shelley as a modest refusal to fall into any number of defensive postures that would serve only to mute her genius. The curators do not sensationalize her biography, condemn Percy Bysshe Shelley's debatable editorial interference, sublimate her novel's ingenuity to its variegated influences, or let the creature's voice or image supersede its creator's. Instead, Mary Shelley transcends being "the daughter of famous writers and the partner of another," as the first banner announces, emerging as the inspiration for an expertly curated body of images and artifacts that is refreshingly committed to material indexicality, reminding the visitor that a multimedia exhibit need not lean on digitized, interactive kiosks.
Anchored by the portrait, both rooms immediately underscore Shelley's authority. Upon entering the contextual half, I was confronted with Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare(1781), recalling Shelley's 1831 account of the reverie that inspired her to compose Frankenstein. The room's densely organized, labyrinthine arrangement encourages the visitor to study every one of its artifacts, [End Page 232]speaking to the exhibit's obvious pedagogical potential and thoughtfulness. To these ends, each item's gloss manages to be erudite without being presumptuous or condescending: for instance, regarding one of Frankenstein's manuscript pages, the annotation explains how Lockean empiricism bears on the creature's coming to consciousness. In this first section of the exhibit, "The Gothic Strain," the curators constellate a number of Fuseli's works (including The Three Witches) to note Fuseli's relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft, thus signaling Shelley's familiarity with his works. More broadly, this section is attentive to the distinction between the "horror gothic" and the "rational gothic" as well as to how the genre as a whole lent itself to parody. Thomas Rowlandson's hand-colored etching The Covent Garden Nightmare(1784), which replaces Fuseli's eroticized female victim with the naked body of then-Whig party leader Charles James Fox, is only one such example. Yet Fuseli does not...