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The Rise of the Modern Museum

By Edited Apr 6, 2016 0 0

By the early to mid 1800s the focus of reform shifted from correcting behavior to transforming the inner lives of the masses which would then translate to proper social behavior. Elements of culture, like libraries, parks and museums, transformed into recreational environments where the masses could experience and then emulate the content (education) and context (buildings, parks, etc.) of more civilized society. Social reform and recreational activities had the same goals: making the civilizing process enjoyable, invisible and highly powerful. The museum took embodied social transformation in three ways: creating a public space intended to encourage moral behavior, displaying objects for educational purposes and creating a way to self-regulate social behavior.

Shaping Space

Civilizing the masses required access to objects valued by the elite and high culture. These precious collections were to private houses, palaces and courts. Uplifting the masses did not require access to private spaces but rather creating spaces where all classes could view cultural treasures. While not requiring strict codes of courts the museum did need rules of behavior for all visitors. Middle and upper classes modeled behavior which was then emulated by lower classes who sought inclusion and conformity with their social superiors. The new museum space allowed for reverence of objects of high culture and homogenization of social behavior.

Opening of the Bethnal Green Museum, London, U.K. 1872(127536)
Credit: Illustrated News London

Reordering Cultural Objects

Calling a space a museum was not enough to make it a transformative environment. The mode of displaying objects was essential. Museum displays changed from objects in private assembled and displayed by the collector and seemingly disorganized and arbitrary to many others into displays that told narratives or expressed ideas. New arrangements of objects presented a particular ordering of society. National, geographic and thematic similarities dictated organization of display, placing emphasis on certain regions and people and excluding others. Instead of being objects of curiosity they became ways to look at and create a historical narrative. Perhaps the most significant adjustment was displays creating a narrative of history as an evolution of civilization. The pinnacle of civilization was not was on display but rather in the space occupied by the displays and the visitors.

Self-regulating Behavior

While the environment inside the museum encouraged morality the architecture intended to regulate it. The buildings needed galleries that could accommodate a large amount of visitors and open enough to allow supervision. Ideal museums would allow people to inspect displays while being able to watch the behavior those around them. Architectural plans featuring long, open galleries that were visible to and from second and third stories. Middle and upper class patrons modeled appropriate museum manners until the expectations of behavior were known by enough visitors that it was self-regulated. Members of all social classes were mixing and following the same rules of civilized behavior. For the reformers this was the ideal result: museums allowed for exhibition of items of cultural value and civilized behavior and created an atmosphere in which under classes learned, copied and then adopted civilized manners and morality.

The museum is no longer considered a site of active social reform, but the format developed in the 1800s persists: museums are open to the public for little or no fee, display arrange objects to tell a particular story and visitors learn and follow proper museum behavior and correct others if they talk too loud or try to touch the items on display. While the specific goals of the museum have changed since the 1800s the principles of social equality, morality, history, and education remain the core of what has become a cultural institution.

Natural History Museum(127537)
Credit: www.nhm.ac.uk
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Bibliography

  1. Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Lanham: Rowan and Little field, 2008.
  2. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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