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Museums and Biographies

Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities

Edited by Kate Hill
Volume: 9
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 352
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.cttn3370
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  • Book Info
    Museums and Biographies
    Book Description:

    Museums and biographies both tell the stories of lives. This innovative collection examines for the first time biography - of individuals, objects and institutions - in relationship to the museum, casting new light on the many facets of museum history and theory, from the lives of prominent curators, to the context of museums of biography and autobiography. Separate sections cover individual biography and museum history, problematising individual biographies, institutional biographies, object biographies, and museums as biographies/autobiographies. These articles offer new ways of thinking about museums and museum history, exploring how biography in and of the museum enriches museum stories by stressing the inter-related nature of lives of people, objects and institutions as part of a dense web of relationships. Through their widely ranging research, the contributors demonstrate the value of thinking about the stories told in and by museums, and the relationships which make up museums; and suggest new ways of undertaking and understanding museum biographies. Dr Kate Hill is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Lincoln. Contributors: Jeffrey Abt, Felicity Bodenstein, Alison Booth, Stuart Burch, Lucie Carreau, Elizabeth Crooke, Steffi de Jong, Mark Elliott, Sophie Forgan, Mariana Françozo, Laura Gray, Kate Hill, Suzanne MacLeod, Wallis Miller, Belinda Nemec, Donald Preziosi, Helen Rees Leahy, Linda Sandino, Julie Sheldon, Alexandra Stara, Louise Tythacott, Chris Whitehead, Anne Whitelaw.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-975-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Museums and Biographies – Telling Stories about People, Things and Relationships
    (pp. 1-10)
    Kate Hill

    Biographies and museums both lie in a grey area of knowledge and affect; they tell us about what happened, but also form emotionally compelling and satisfying narratives. They mediate the academic and the popular, spanning the physical and imaginary worlds. They are linked by an ability to tell us about ourselves and our world as moving through time, but also serve to immortalise, to freeze in time. Above all, when museums and biographies come together or overlap, what we get is relationships: between people, between people and things, and between people and buildings. Moreover, museums and biographies together highlight questions...

  5. Individual Biography and Museum History

    • 1 A Show of Generosity: Donations and the Intimacy of Display in the ‘Cabinet des médailles et antiques’ in Paris from 1830 to 1930
      (pp. 13-28)
      Felicity Bodenstein

      In 1929, Jean Babelon, curator and future director of the Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, better known as the Cabinet des médailles, claimed that the donations of individual benefactors had been of essential importance to forming an official science of archaeology, contributing to ‘constructing an edifice, which otherwise would not be standing today’ (Babelon 1929, 6).¹ The metaphoric edifices he was referring to were the disciplines that had been developed to classify and understand the new material regrouped and housed in public archaeology museums; physical edifices such as the Cabinet des médailles et antiques.

      Who were these benefactors, how...

    • 2 Introducing Mr Moderna Museet: Pontus Hultén and Sweden’s Museum of Modern Art
      (pp. 29-44)
      Stuart Burch

      Jean Tinguely’s Fiesta Bar is lined with liquor bottles. Tasty-looking snacks by Claes Oldenburg are available for visual consumption. People hungry for knowledge can read from an extensive library. The even more inquisitive are able to salve their curiosity by nosing through some postcards sent by On Kawara. Those wishing to exercise their bodies rather than their minds can follow Andy Warhol’s handy Dance Diagram and foxtrot around the gallery. There is, alas, no musical accompaniment. Indeed, time seems to stand still, like the motionless hands of Ed Kienholz’s clock. Suddenly the silence is broken when someone presses an inviting...

    • 3 Sydney Pavière and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
      (pp. 45-58)
      Laura Gray

      After 33 years of service, Sydney Pavière, white-haired and three years beyond the usual retirement age, stood before the Art Gallery Committee. He was there to announce his retirement from his post of art director and curator at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery. Addressing the committee, and speaking with obvious affection and sincerity, he said: ‘Gentlemen we have built a monument here. please see that nothing is done to despoil it’ (Rushton 1959, 33).

      It sometimes happens that the character, as well as the actions, of a particular curator casts a long shadow within a museum or gallery. In...

  6. Problematising Individuals’ Biographies

    • 4 ‘His Best Successor’: Lady Eastlake and the National Gallery
      (pp. 61-74)
      Julie Sheldon

      In 1875, Lady Eastlake, the widow of the first Director of the National Gallery, confided to a cousin that she believed herself to have been the best person to have succeeded her husband in the management of the Gallery:

      I had such an exceptional education in connoisseurship at my beloved One’s side – & there is scarcely a creature with whom I can share it. I feel that I shd have been his best successor in the direction of the Nat: Gallery. Boxall was unimpugnable, but hated the employmt, the present man is totally unfit for it, & has introduced most inferior...

    • 5 Women, Museums and the Problem of Biography
      (pp. 75-86)
      Anne Whitelaw

      In the opening pages of Biography: A Very Short Introduction, Hermione Lee describes the genre of biography through the striking metaphors of the autopsy and the portrait. A biography is like an autopsy because it literally opens up the individual to ‘investigate, understand, describe, and explain what may have seemed obscure, strange, or inexplicable’ (Lee 2009, 1). Conversely, the metaphor of the portrait suggests that biographies can capture the character of a subject, bringing a person to life through ‘attention to detail and skill in representation’ (Lee 2009, 2). Taken together, these metaphors underscore both the analytical and representational operations...

    • 6 A Curatocracy: Who and What is a V&A Curator?
      (pp. 87-100)
      Linda Sandino

      On 5 July 1989, at the opening of the Design Museum in London, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, displayed an attitude to museum culture that was to revolutionise the future of such institutions in the United Kingdom. ‘I call it an Exhibition Centre and not a museum – a museum is something that is really rather dead’ (Thatcher 1989). Some months previously, the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) had experienced a management revolution which became the focus for polarised debates about its meaning and the role of curators: as one curator expressed it in his oral history recording: ‘By...

  7. Institutional Biographies

    • 7 Significant Lives: Telling Stories of Museum Architecture
      (pp. 103-118)
      Suzanne MacLeod

      This paper explores the potential of biography as a strategy for generating histories of museum buildings and provides a rationale for why this would be an important addition to the architectural history of museums and galleries and museum studies more broadly. Drawing on recent academic research in museum studies, architectural history and theory, as well as biography, autobiography and life writing, the chapter explores aspects of the subjects, methods and outcomes of architectural history. It asks questions about what such an approach might tell us about architecture and what histories it might reveal of museums, galleries and the people who...

    • 8 Schinkel’s Museums: Collecting and Displaying Architecture in Berlin, 1844–1933
      (pp. 119-132)
      Wallis Miller

      The story of architecture museums in Berlin is, in one sense, a short one.¹ Although Berlin’s collection of archives dedicated to architecture is quite deep, it was only in 2007, when the Technical University renamed its archive and exhibition space after its historic Architekturmuseum, that the architecture museum as a type of institution re-established itself in the city’s cultural landscape.² Before this, the last time there was an architecture museum in Berlin was from 1931 to 1933. It was called the Schinkel Museum, and its short lifespan is surprising, given that Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) was – and still...

    • 9 Personifying the Museum: Incorporation and Biography in American Museum History
      (pp. 133-144)
      Jeffrey Abt

      The subtitle of Bayle St John’s 1855 book The Louvre, or, Biography of a Museum, telegraphed the Englishman’s humanisation of the museum’s history and collections so that it would be ‘interesting even to readers who have never seen it’. Although he did not intend to treat the Louvre as a ‘personified institution’, St John hoped a biographical approach might prove more attractive to a potential readership (St John 1885, v–vi, 2). St John’s use of ‘biography’ to characterise his approach was novel and followed by just a year the earliest deployment of the word for writings about subjects other...

    • 10 Making an Exhibition of Ourselves
      (pp. 145-156)
      Helen Rees Leahy

      In recent years, museums have staged a number of ‘exhibitions of exhibitions’. These experiments in institutional, curatorial and artistic revivalism have ranged from allusions to, and quotations from, past installations to full-scale re-enactments and reconstructions (Greenberg 2009). Some have reproduced assemblages that were first exhibited two centuries ago, while others have remounted exhibitions from the recent past. The motivations of the curators and artists responsible for these diverse projects have included the desire to mark famous anniversaries, to recuperate long-forgotten shows, to examine the effects of different modes of display and spectatorship, and to construct an archive of the immaterial...

    • 11 Institutional Autobiography and the Architecture of the Art Museum: Restoration and Remembering at the National Gallery in the 1980s
      (pp. 157-170)
      Christopher Whitehead

      This chapter explores some of the ways in which art museums speak with and about their own pasts through focusing historically on events at the National Gallery in the 1980s and 1990s. The ongoing revalorisation of Victorian interiors within museums which commenced in those decades has led to a spate of restoration projects. These ostensibly reverse the modernist project of stripping away (or, more accurately, overlaying) Victorian features. Such restorations re-inscribe a heritage of Victorian museology into the modern-day art museum as a building and as an institution. What emerges is a special kind of institutional autobiography in which the...

  8. Object Biographies

    • 12 Classifying China: Shifting Interpretations of Buddhist Bronzes in Liverpool Museum, 1867–1997
      (pp. 173-186)
      Louise Tythacott

      This chapter examines the lives of a set of five Chinese Buddhist deity figures in Liverpool Museum, from 1867 to 1997.² The largest figure, an almost-life-size bronze statue of the Goddess of Compassion, Guanyin (see Fig 12.1), probably dates from the early 15th century. The other four – Wenshu, Puxian, Weituo and Guangong – are early 17th-century creations. All five belonged to a temple on Putuo Island, off the east coast of China. For over a thousand years this was one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country, devoted to the worship of Guanyin. The statues were...

    • 13 ‘Dressed like an Amazon’: The Transatlantic Trajectory of a Red Feather Coat
      (pp. 187-200)
      Mariana Françozo

      In 2000, the Brazilian Ministry of Culture prepared and organised an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans on the South American continent. Located at the Ibirapuera Park in the city of São Paulo, the exhibition was called ‘Mostra do Redescobrimento’ (‘Rediscovery Exhibit’) and aimed at showcasing a wide variety of examples of Brazilian art, including Portuguese–Brazilian, African–Brazilian, Amerindian, Baroque and Popular Art.² For this occasion, the Danish National Museum agreed to lend a particularly rare artefact that was produced during the first century of colonial contacts: a 1.2m-long, 60cm-wide red feather coat, most likely...

    • 14 Individual, Collective and Institutional Biographies: The Beasley Collection of Pacific Artefacts
      (pp. 201-214)
      Lucie Carreau

      Ethnographic collections housed in museums are, in theory, no different from any other collections of arts or crafts. They are made of objects assembled by a collector with a particular motive, in a particular historical and cultural context. In practice, however, ethnographic collections tell a very different story.

      From the outset, collecting from the Pacific was the by-product of a scientific project of discovery and encounters. Although some ethnographic objects had been displayed in wunderkammer and cabinets of curiosities in the Renaissance period, it was James Cook’s three voyages of exploration (1768–71, 1772–75 and 1776–79) that revealed...

    • 15 Sculptural Biographies in an Anthropological Collection: Mrs Milward’s Indian ‘Types’
      (pp. 215-228)
      Mark J Elliott

      In 1947, the year India gained its independence from Britain, an English sculptor named Marguerite Milward wrote to her friend, the Cambridge archaeologist John Henry Hutton, offering to donate to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology her entire collection of portrait sculptures of native ‘types’ from the Indian subcontinent.¹ The collection was the product of three years of expeditions throughout India’s Deccan Peninsula and up into the Himalayas, and constituted over 100 representations of men and women, mainly from Adivasi or ‘tribal’ communities. Her offer was eagerly accepted by Hutton, himself a former administrator in north-east India and a...

  9. Museums as Biography

    • 16 Houses and Things: Literary House Museums as Collective Biography
      (pp. 231-246)
      Alison Booth

      In 1979, not long after David Parker became curator of the Charles Dickens Museum in London, he addressed one of the first conferences on literary museums, reflecting on the designs and effects of an exhibit in a writer’s former home (Barthel and Kunze 1986, 4).¹ He expressed envy of Thomas Carlyle’s House, a museum that inherited many original possessions and documentation of the arrangement of the rooms along with a large body of biography about Thomas and Jane Carlyle: ‘The rest of us should be so lucky!’ (Parker 1986, 2).² The museum’s trust, first private and then national, had been...

    • 17 ‘Keepers of the Flame’: Biography, Science and Personality in the Museum
      (pp. 247-264)
      Sophie Forgan

      In 1854 Charles Dickens visited Paris, the scene of one of his most famous novels, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and found inspiration in what he termed the museum of ‘Second-Hand Sovereigns’. There, in the Louvre, he found a museum of the ‘Paraphernalia of the Kings and Emperors of France’, and, despite railing against the rottenness of human grandeur, he was carried away by seeing the boots, the hats, the voluminous crimson mantle, the Emperor’s writing-table which bore ‘oh! such unmistakeable signs of hard work, indomitable perseverance, and iron will! … splashed with ink … punched with penknives …...

    • 18 National History as Biography: Alexandre Lenoir’s Museum of French Monuments
      (pp. 265-276)
      Alexandra Stara

      Alexandre Lenoir’s Museum of French Monuments in Paris (1795–1816) began life as a temporary depot during the French Revolution, sheltering artefacts salvaged from nationalised church, royal and aristocratic property. Following Lenoir’s dogged pursuit of his cause, the depot was eventually turned into a public museum that fused emerging ideas about art, history and personality, enhanced with the flair of Lenoir’s creative curation, to produce a unique representation of France. Unlike the model of the great museums, which was developing nearby in the high-profile Louvre and was to become the norm in the 19th century, the Museum of Monuments presented...

  10. Museums as Autobiography

    • 19 Autobiographical Museums
      (pp. 279-294)
      Belinda Nemec

      By an autobiographical museum I mean a museum of which the principal subject is the story of the life and/or career of the person who established the museum. Many of these museums are well known, but the autobiographical museum as a distinct genre has been given little scholarly attention.

      Although it can be argued that all personal collecting is an exercise in self-expression and identity-formation, not all personal collecting is autobiographical. Conversely, some highly personal collections, dwellings or environments arranged for the purpose of permanent public display were not dubbed ‘museums’ by their creators but can be characterised as autobiographical...

    • 20 Who is History? The Use of Autobiographical Accounts in History Museums
      (pp. 295-308)
      Steffi de Jong

      From october 2007 until May 2008, on the occasion of the celebration of the 50th anni- versary of the Rome Treaties, the Brussels-based non-profit organisation Museum of Europe showed the exhibition ‘It’s our history!’.² ‘It’s our history!’, which was originally meant as the opening exhibition of a bigger museum of European history,³ was on display in a slightly altered form under the title ‘Europa – To nasza historia’ in Wrocław⁴ during the summer of 2009. Its subject was the history of European integration from 1945 to 2007 and, as the title – It’s our history! – indicates, it was the...

    • 21 Community Biographies: Character, Rationale and Significance
      (pp. 309-320)
      Elizabeth Crooke

      This chapter is an exploration of community projects in which members have been engaged in writing their own histories. In the examples cited, oral history and photographs are used as building blocks to tell community stories and are eventually the basis of community collections, archives or exhibitions. In this chapter these initiatives are interpreted as acts of community autobiography – they are a means for groups to research, construct and disseminate their histories for themselves. The examples discussed in this chapter were developed with the assistance of local museums or other learning bodies, and the analysis is based upon discussions...

  11. Endpiece: The Homunculus and the Pantograph, or Narcissus at the Met
    (pp. 321-326)
    Donald Preziosi

    A clear awareness of the reality of our own finitude being a possibly unbearable source of anxiety, we may at times be tempted to actually believe in our own immortality. Autobiographic, biographic and museographic possibilities for after-lives seduce us into imagining the constraints of the real being eliminated if we keep a tense yet measured distance – a coy similitude or a pantographic relationship – toward our (self) image. As epistemological technologies of virtual space, museums and collections keep the real at a manageable distance in the face of anxieties. The ego’s habitation in museological space opened up by its...

  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 327-330)
  13. Index
    (pp. 331-338)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 339-339)