The nineteenth century witnessed a flowering of museums in towns and cities across Britain. As well as providing a focus for collections of artifacts and a place of educational recreation, this work argues that municipal museums had a further, social role. In a situation of rapid urban growth, allied to social and cultural changes on a scale hitherto unknown, it was inevitable that traditional class and social hierarchies would come under enormous pressure. As a result, urban elites began to look to new methods of controlling and defining the urban environment. One such manifestation of this was the growth of the public museum. In earlier centuries museums were the preserve of learned and respectable minority, yet by the end of the nineteenth century one of the principal rationales of museums was the education, or 'improvement', of the working classes. In the control of museums too there was a corresponding shift away from private aristocratic leadership, toward a middle-class civic directorship and a growing professional body of curators. This work is in part a study of the creation of professional authority and autonomy by museum curators. More importantly though, it is about the stablization of middle-class identities by the end of the nineteenth century around new hierarchies of cultural capital. Public museums were an important factor in constructing the identity and authority of certain groups with access to, and control over, them. By examining urban identities through the cultural lens of the municipal museum, we are able to reconsider and better understand the subtleties of nineteenth-century urban society.
Table of Contents
Contents: Introduction: interpreting museums; Negotiating the new urban environment; The public museum in the 19th century; The social characteristics of municipal museums; Reading the objects; Decoding the displays and layout; Consuming the museum: museum visitors; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.
’...[Hill's] insights about museums as sites for class formation and the muted role of museums in social control are overdue, and the book will be welcomed by museums studies courses in particular as filling an important gap in the literature.’ Journal of Victorian Culture ’This is an engaging and timely book which looks at municipal and not national, English museums in the age of their most intense development, after the series of mid-nineteenth century Parliamentary Acts which allowed town councils to establish museums and to levy rates to do so. ...this is a sophisticated and persuasive book, which I imagine will form an important reference point for scholars working in similar areas. It surveys relatively new territory well and forms a very worthwhile contribution to the literature on museum history as well as to the debates about museum historiography.’ Museum and Society