March 25, 2011

How Good A Victorian Are You?

I’m an inveterate museum goer, but I’m discerning about where I spend my time. Museums have to walk a fine line these days for the sake of making money. Such vulgar pursuits ought really to be beyond their purview, but alas, everyone must play the game. The museum – which had its zenith under the Victorians – is now a sort of theme park. And like all theme parks, some are better than others.

There are museums that flaunt their superstar objets d’art, which they claim are objets trouvés, but which (in the West, at least) are usually objets volés. From the Elgin Marbles to Nefertiti, these artefacts pull in the tourists to gawk and throng, without really imparting any obvious benefit to the viewers. They must be seen because travel guides inform travellers that they simply must be seen. And that’s that.

Nefertiti: nicked.

Then there are the museums that make up for their conspicuous lack of Elgin Marbles by being interactive. I hate interactive museums. ‘Lift this’, ‘Pull that’, ‘Open this drawer’, ‘Play this stupid game’: it’s all such a frightful bore, and inevitably so. After all, these museums have been designed for children, with no mind given to the poor parents who have to schlep around after them, looking increasingly beleaguered at the mass display of over-stimulated ADD. Unfortunately, the Natural History Museum in London has gone in this direction, when there was really no need. The statue of Darwin sits atop the main staircase looking for all the world like none of his living headaches was ever this bad. Make it stop, make it stop, please God (?) make it stop…

Darwin: Cheesed off

Next there are the museums that demand you read everything. A wall of text greets you, and you spend the next fourteen hours craning to read small wall-mounted signs that tell you all a good scholar could ever want to know on the subject. You can read about different interpretations of this and that, scholarly debates, where exactly the horde was dug up and its significance and, probably, you can find out precisely what you’re supposed to think about it all. The signs will tell you. These museums are often complemented by a catholic collection of artefacts that fit the description: ‘Everything ever done or ever made. Ever’.

The best museums somehow manage to take the best elements of all these models and balance them out. They are usually small, often specialist, typically focused on singular artistic or historical themes. A couple of my favourites are the Bergruenn Museum in Berlin, the new building of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the Morgan in New York. But no museum as yet had ever managed to convince me about the need for interactive technological contrivances. That is until today, when some friends pointed me in the direction of the McCord Museum in Montreal.

Shamefully, I’ve never been to this place, even though I lived for several years about two minutes away on foot. Now I am 4,000 miles away and yet I have been lured in. So much about the Victorian era is encapsulated in the museum, yet most people know precisely nothing about what Victorians were like. Now’s your chance to play a little game, online (shudder), where you can discover just how good a Victorian you would have made. It’s all about dressing, manners and etiquette. It is right up my street, and damn it if it isn’t interactive.

Go and have a play. I discovered I have a tendency to overdress, but otherwise I am a ‘picture of politeness’. Now, when a museum application tells you this, you jolly well shake it by the hand and invite it over for tea. It seems I have been formally welcomed to post-modernity, through the Victorians of all people.


  1. There is nothing volé about the Elgin Marbles.

  2. Excellent post. I share your aversion to the interactive museum. Some of the great London museums have sadly gone this way. I note in particular the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I visited in 2006 after a gap of about 17 years and recognized absolutely nothing. All the lovely exhibits they previously had were gone, having been replaced by a child-friendly fun-fair of sorts.

  3. Anonymous, you are too funny.

    Thank you IH. Indeed, Greenwich is a sad case.

  4. I tested my Victorian-ness, and it appears that dancing and dressing are my downfall. I, too, was a "picture of politeness," but with a score under 500 I fear I would be a mediocre Victorian indeed.

  5. My dear Hatchet, fear not! 500 is the top score each for man and woman. You have to do both to get 1000.


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