Research Seminar Review: 'Museum, Market, Material Culture' (21/01/2009)

Museum, Market, Material Culture: the birth of the object in the early nineteenth century
Dr Mark Westgarth

On 21st January, Dr Mark Westgarth from the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds, came to speak to us as part of the Museum Studies Brown Bag seminar programme (all welcome!!).  Mark's very interesting presentation took as its themes the emergence of a distinctive historical consciousness in the early nineteenth century, the rise of the antique and curiosity dealer and the development of the public history museum.  These three factors were, he argued very persuasively, intimately bound and integral to the establishment of the museum object, specifically how the museum elides the commodity status of an object.  During this era the museum object became the bearer of historical knowledge, understood as holding intrinsic historical information.

The emergence and growth of the antique market, and the shift away from the collection of antiquities towards objects from the more recent past, such as Delft pottery or seventeenth and eighteenth century furniture, was a catalyst for the projection of value onto objects of the past.  By the 1830s this was the principal route by which the historical object was articulated.  At around the same time, Britain was undergoing radical social, economic and demographic changes.  Along with an epistemological shift towards the emergence of historical consciousness, together these factors acted as the catalyst for burgeoning interest in historical objects.  Collecting was becoming the prerogative of a mass public.  The term Mark used was 'embourgeoisment', which caused much debate later in the Q&A session!  The antique and curiosity dealer played a key role in meeting supply and demand.   

An emergent perception of the past as past lead to significant changes in the choice and range of objects acquired.  Collections became more expansive and representational.  This development was underscored by growing political and national considerations: the public museum and mass historical tourism indicated the growing consumption of the past in British society.  Social and historical value came to be privileged over the aesthetic and 'sublime' (the concerns of the previous century).  All this was underpinned by a historicism which stressed the primacy of historical context and accuracy.  A broad romanticism was another factor which brought the more recent past to the attention of the mass public.  Affordable collectors' guides were published, like Merrick's Specimens of Ancient Furniture (first pub. in 1836), which became a critical text republished as late as 1866.  Scholarship focused upon the more prosaic aspects of the past: the mundane and domestic became legitimate subjects for academic study.

Specimens is significant because it demonstrates the move away from the authority previously attributed to written records, to physical objects.  A new legitimacy was attached to material sources.  Illustrations were taken from 'material entities.'  Facts became important: history was recast as a science, and museums became stores of historical legitimacy.  Reconstructions made from study of written texts were banished from museums, and replaced by the authentic object.  The objects illustrated in Specimens gave declarations of ownership and provenance.  Many were owned by named antique and curiosity dealers.  This signals that objects had become rooted in a wider system of commerce.  Thus, Specimens,  is - according to Mark - a highly significant publication because it provides evidence for all the phenomenon outlined above.

Mark kindly agreed for his seminar to be recorded and this is now available for UoL PhD students to listen to via Blackboard.


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