The purpose of museums

One of the reasons for staying in Saltaire was to be near the Bradford Industrial Museum. It’s in a mill, a vestige of the industrial age.

Not as easy as I’d hoped, the bus route takes one to within a few blocks, then you have to walk through a bit of suburb. Industrial museums built in old mills are not, of course, in the center of town.

But what a museum! So many rooms and recreations. At first it seemed deserted — we wandered around the outbuildings before a man came out of the mill (he was on his way to lunch) and invited us inside, telling us where all the exhibits were. He apologized for the steam engine not running, as they’re doing renovations. Then we explored on our own.

The Studio to Selfie exhibit was small, but I loved the idea: exploring photography within the context of modern cultural habits. Translating something historical into modern terms is often a good thing to do. But I was sad because one element was clearly missing among the Victorian photographs, perhaps because it was too gruesome. Death photography was a morbid and fascinating trend in Victorian times, but was not even mentioned. It’s a subject particularly suited to visual analysis, since it was not at all typical (many of the examples that make their way round the web are of living people, just photographed badly). It thus plays into current themes about “fake news”.

The Bradford Industrial Museum obviously has extraordinary knowledge behind it. There are excellent exhibits, many created with a lot of love. But there are too few people presenting it, so it isn’t easy to ask questions. And not everything is labeled, including the many machines attached to the pulleys that were working in the engine room.

The print works were particularly fascinating.

As soon as I saw the sheer quantity of printing machinery, I went in search of a jellygraph, since H.G. Wells wrote about one. I couldn’t find one, nor anyone to ask. There was a wonderful timeline down a wall, showing changes in media over the years, but not relating it to the web or media culture today. In the weaving room, instead of someone actually running a loom, there was a video of someone in that same room running a loom. Efficient, but somewhat bloodless.

The museum is free, which means that the staff is all volunteer, so I don’t blame them for the video or anything else. It was a weekday, and we saw only a few other people visiting.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in museums over the years, and their efforts to bring in new visitors. The addition of multimedia was seen as a cure-all for awhile, but people have, I think, tired of just interacting with more screens when they come into a space that’s supposed to offer something different. Similarly, audio “soundscapes” and video “enactments” (for example, having video of an actor pretending to be a prisoner projected onto a cell wall) have become dull in an age of interactive media. This stuff was too little, too late.

The idea that museums can teach, the pedagogy of the museum visit, may be in difficulty also. This problem is hardly new. I uncovered an H.G. Wells article last week called “Variorum:  Of The Fallacy of Museums” (1895), where Wells explored whether museums work for teaching groups of children. He concluded no, primarily because of the poor organization of museums for this type of learning. You cannot learn about “birds” if you’re a 10-year-old interested in birds, because the information is divided among various areas of the museum. To see the bones of a bird, you go to the skeletons. To see feathers, you go to the taxidermy area. And to see the insides, you go to the jars in the basement. It’s hard to learn that way.

The Science Museum at South Kensington, of course, was really intended as a research institution rather than a place for free public education. But today many museums are assumed to take on this larger task.

Industrial heritage might be a hard sell these days. It’s no longer appropriate just to celebrate machinery, because everyone’s very sensitive to (and guilty about) industrialization. I noticed that all around the Bradford area, the old smokestacks from the mills, though preserved, feature cellular relay antennas. England has found a good use for those tall remnants of smoky industrial might. People are tentative now about celebrating an age that featured not only pollution, but child labor and the death of other romantic notions: the beautiful countryside, hand-crafted items, planned communities.

The interest now is in extremes. That’s why the costumed actors are projected on the walls at places like York Castle Museum. Being imprisoned is an intense experience, so the effort is to get people interested via their emotions. So why be squeamish about death photography? It was an extreme thing, propping up the dead baby in a photo with the other children. That would get people interested — the past has many horrors tinged with sympathy.

I went to London after this, and they’re still lining up at Madame Tussaud’s.

Waxwork of murderer H.H. Crippen

When it first opened in the 1830s, visitors were interested in the “from life” waxworks of people executed during the French Revolution, or wanted to see what their politicians and royalty looked like in the years before television or color photography. Nowadays, the website doesn’t even refer to its history, just the celebrities one can pose with for a selfie. Anna Marie Gresholtz (Madame Tussaud) would love it, with her talent for promotion — see Tussaud’s original catalog here. Although a few of her waxworks may have been from life (or death masks), most of her work was purely imaginative or based on previous portraits. Then, as now, the most popular part of the exhibit was the Chamber of Horrors. This isn’t the first generation to want extreme in their entertainment.

Museums like Bradford will do better once we get over our difficulties celebrating industrialization. But in the meantime, a few death photos, and some solid relationships to current trends, wouldn’t hurt.




2 comments to The purpose of museums

  • jmm

    “A few death photos…couldn’t hurt” is not a sentence I imagined reading this morning at my kitchen table, drinking coffee and watching mourning doves splash in the bath, but okay. The morbid, the Gothic–not my favorite Victorian niches, but perhaps no different from sugar skulls frosted with the names of loved ones or paper-mache skeletons playing the banjo.

    It’s a shame that industrialism was allowed to run roughshod over the poor and the environment for the sake of higher profits, since the benefits it brought us are so great. Sure, spinning one’s own yarn might be a pleasantly meditative pastime, but are we really longing for the days when we’d have to make our own cloth? Bring on the fulling mills and the jacquard looms, thankyouverymuch. Just stop dumping the waste in the river.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Well, that’s just it. And I’m sure I’m not advocating the glorification of industry at the cost of all else. But we are losing the spirit of seat-of-the-pants innovation and respect for the mechanical, at a time when we cannot repair our own car engines (a subject among many discussed with a London cabbie last week) or engage in innovation that isn’t electronically digital.