I recently visited the Brontë Museum in Haworth. It was fascinating and I will be returning. The whole place was a mixture of real and unreal.
There were rooms made up to look as they would have done based on diaries and accounts of the time when Charlotte Brontë was living. In some cases original wallpapers were revealed beneath the plaster or paintwork and their colours had been restored to give visitors a sense of their original effect. Objects, such as crockery and utensils, were arranged throughout the house and were sometimes the originals and sometimes those that would have been like the originals. These objects almost give the rooms the effect of being in use – in a frozen-in-time Mary Celeste museum kind of way.
In what we might consider to be the main room, Charlotte Brontë’s bedroom, there are glass cabinets set up in a museum-like style. Unlike some of the other rooms, it is not simulated as a bedroom, but instead works as a mash-up of museum and authentic wallpaper styled room. Various artefacts are on display. In the centre and standing in a glass case looms a dress of Charlotte’s. Without a mannequin it hovers as a reminder that the occupant has long since departed. Nearby, shoes embroidered using her dead sister’s hair sit in one case, along with a nightcap with glow-in-the-dark embroidery. Of course back in the 19th century, before the EU and its suffocating legislation, radioactive nightcaps used to be all the rage in England. Following recent political developments I suppose the British are free to reclaim their lost heritage and wear radium infused clothing any time they want. Fancy.
Nestled among notebooks also is a pair of Charlotte Brontë’s glasses. I crouched down low to look through the display case and therefore through the lenses of her reading glasses “directly”. I felt it significant to look through her glasses because it was something that she would have done herself. Even though I was looking through them backwards I felt as though I could almost be looking through them into Charlotte Brontë’s eyes. It is a romantic notion, but this is the closest I am likely to get.
The interior of the house was full of rich visuality, but the view out from the windows was also emotive. Beyond the garden, looking out towards the front of the house, the adjacent churchyard can be seen with impressive trees towering above rows of gravestones. There is little about this that feels fake. The town and churchyard are real places with real people living in our modern world. If you ignore the throngs of visitors being taken on guided tours, you might even be able to engage in peaceful contemplation.
All of the artefacts and the house itself raise many questions about the role of women, craft and history. The tangibility of everything is thought provoking and it is for this reason that I mentioned the museum to one of my students during a tutorial recently. I told them about the sister’s-hair-embroidered shoe, noting its link to their own research. “I have some photographs of the embroidered shoe,” I explained.
I looked on my phone, but I couldn’t find them anywhere.
After the student left I looked more carefully through my phone album. There was nothing. Then I recalled that photography is not allowed in the museum and my memories of this came flooding back. I had not taken any photos. Now I remembered that this was a relief in many ways. I didn’t have to worry about capturing anything. Instead, I could focus on seeing the museum and its exhibits and in many respects this felt liberating.
What is interesting about recounting the museum to a student was my assumption that I had taken photographs. It would appear that for me museums are so closely associated with the performance of photography that it has become interchangeable with my own mind’s eye. I didn’t take any photographs, but I perceived my own eyeball-only visual memories to be photography.
This makes me think of two ways in which digital photography features in my life. First of all, photographing objects and events has become so commonplace for me that it has become a default action that is integral to the performance of my life; from obsessively capturing every waking (and sleeping) moment of my children to my experience of, and my performance at, heritage sites and museums. As visitors we do perform at heritage sites and more recently the introduction of digital photography, especially the ease of its application through smartphones, has influenced this performance. Sharing those photos is easy, too, and so the museum visit is extended beyond the museum walls – this is perhaps no different to how traditional photography (or even just talking about a museum visit) extends the visit, but the effect is more instant. The integration with our lives is perhaps more fluid.
Secondly, this integration has become so effective that digital imagery appears to have become privileged in my own mind over my own mental imagery.
When speaking to the student and recalling Charlotte Brontë’s craftwork, the images that were conjured within my own mind were those created purely from my own body interacting and sensing the museum and its objects – direct phenomenological engagement with the museum. I visualised the museum objects without the mediation of technology. But when I recalled my visit, my assumption was that instead of remembering the actual objects I was in fact remembering digital images of the objects stored on my phone, or of the phone screen images while I was taking photographs. So confident am I in my own intentions to capture the imagery of my life that I was sure I had taken a photograph. More than this, even a non-existent photographic performance has somehow become more reliable to me than my own visual memory.
Perhaps this is not a problem, but I feel that it has implications for the reality of my experience – it has made me question what it is that I value from an experience. If my mind is referring to the digital capture as the reliable account of a museum visit then it seems that my mind is constructing a simulacrum of that visit – my mind is using the ‘unreal’ to create the ‘real’. A perfect example of Baudrillard’s ‘precession of the simulacrum’ where the ‘fake’ is coming before the ‘real’ thing and informing our interpretation of the real thing. It has made me consider practising greater mindfulness in the future if only because it felt liberating not to take photographs.
But of course the role of the digital image in this way is not much different from the role of the objects that we may find in museums. The crockery and kitchen utensils at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, for example, or the replica wallpaper; all these things are as fake as the digital image. Indeed, what I was seeking when looking through Charlotte Brontë’s glasses was mediated through a complex network of socio-cultural and historical contexts. It was a fabrication of my own imagination, but compelling and authentic to me nonetheless.