Tag Archives: museums

Imagining Charlotte Bronte

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.

Charlotte Brontë’s dress at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (Source: Brontë.org.uk)

Charlotte Brontë’s dress at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (Source: Bronte.org.uk)

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.

Do closed museums mean lost stories and lost futures?

Savage cuts are underway at Lancashire County Council and one of the results is that five museums will be closed. Of course, owing to cuts in local government budgets, museums are under the threat of closure throughout the UK, but I live in Lancashire and so the loss of these particular museums is something I feel more personally. Their closure would directly affect my local access to culture. I have visited three of them with my family; one of them several times.

The narratives supported by these three museums are for me very important. The stories they tell are about everyday people from our history and this is valuable in itself, but there is also great relevance in these stories to modern political discourse.

The Museum of Lancashire in Preston demonstrates a progressive and inclusive approach to history and archaeology. It displayed the Silverdale Hoard until earlier this year. This was particularly notable because the museum aimed to show the public how the archaeological process works. Rather than display the hoard after it had been cleaned and polished, the museum displayed the coins and artefacts still dirty with the earth in which they were buried. It may seem trivial, but the effect here is on the one hand to educate the public about the process of archaeology as well as being open and honest about the subjective nature of archaeology – artefacts are not inherently valuable and meaningful; they must be cleaned, organised into types and categories. The museum, if only symbolically, offered the public a chance to take part in the archaeological process by forming their opinions about the artefacts before they are idealised by the professionals and their authorised heritage narratives.

The value that the museum places on the viewpoints of the public is illustrated further by the time line they have showing the history of Lancashire. This time line stretches from the prehistoric past to the prospective future of Lancashire and these futures are voiced by members of the public; the time line is populated as much by the imagination and hopes of the people as it is by events that are considered to be significant through history. In this way the museum drives home the message that our heritage is constructed by all of us and that the heritage we will share in the future will be created by everyday people. It promotes the idea that everybody’s history is important as well as the notion that everybody should be able to contribute to our cultural habitus. They are embracing Bourdieu and overriding the authorised heritage discourse all in one go (Bourdieu 1977; Smith 2006).

Another museum for the chop is Queen Street Mill. The place is extraordinary insofar as it tells us about what were the ordinary lives of mill workers in Briercliffe, Burnley.

Steam engine running at Queen Street Mill

Steam engine running at Queen Street Mill

The steam engine that drives the mill is fantastic. It gleams, it steams and it curves in beautiful arcs of mechanical movement. It drips and hisses and bangs. The engineer tends it dutifully and we can even get closer to it when he opens the gates. As visitors we can walk the length of the machine, or sit on a bench and enjoy the poetry of its motion. Disappearing into the wall, you can see the spinning shaft that powers the rest of the mill.

The weaving shed and 300 looms running from the steam engine at Queen Street Mill

The weaving shed and 300 looms running from the steam engine at Queen Street Mill

Downstairs you will find banks of machines spinning thread and weaving textiles. The weaving shed filled with rows of machines, featured in the film “The King’s Speech”, is as deafening and frightening as it is awe-inspiring and wonderful.

Along with all these physical reminders of our industrial past, the mills contain the stories of people. Stories of sexual favours required by women workers to get replacement shuttles. Stories of teeth being rotted by the oils on the shuttles, of mouth and lung cancers caused by the licking and the breathing in of the threads and their fibres. These stories are found in the museum through the voices of the staff, some of whom worked in the mills in recent decades and whose families are linked deeply to the building’s past. The rich narrative tapestry includes more than individual stories, involving scandalous histories of mill owners refusing to obey laws to change their shuttles to self-threading versions. In short the mill owners decided to profit instead of prevent cancer and disfigurement in their employees.

Similar stories can be found at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum. On my visit a young interpreter explained with skill how the workers near the water wheel would work in freezing temperatures and how the need for money saw local people selling their urine to the mills. The narrative, as at Queen Street Mill, is one of everyday hardworking people exploited.

It is noteworthy that none of the museums up for closure offer heritage narratives of the eliticised members of society. As examples, Gawthorpe Hall, Towneley Hall, Lancaster Castle will all remain open and strongly represent the monumental heritage of the aristocracy and royalty. It could be argued that the five museums earmarked for closure go against the Authorised Heritage Discourse of the traditional, the institutional and the powerful. The stories they tell do not fit with traditional historical narratives, but they are nonetheless real.

It is here that Queen Street and Helmshore identify an important narrative which is fundamentally relevant in the contemporary political landscape. Including the notion of the Northern Powerhouse.

I find it interesting that the government’s austerity has resulted in the destruction both of stories of the everyday people of the country and of the origins of trade unionism in the face of worker oppression at the hands of private industry. Is the idea of a Northern Powerhouse palatable in such a context? It is a curious approach to powerhouses that involves the choking off of culture from the people who would fundamentally supply their power.

It is difficult to see how such a removal of identity, of destroying opportunities to connect to our own local and national heritages, can be seen as emancipatory. The removal of these museums appears to go hand in hand with the privileging of the powerful few over the many; it appears to silence the voices of the past from which we might learn lessons to challenge the likes of zero hours contracts.

What sort of agenda are we able to discern from this?



Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated from French by R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Smith, L. (2006) The Uses of Heritage, London: Routledge

Digital Museum Fictions

I’ll give a spoiler alert for this post because, although I have no intention of giving away important plot elements, I am going to talk about Interstellar and I don’t want it to be ruined for anybody here!

I really enjoyed the film on many sci-fi levels, but I was surprised to come across a museumified house in the later part. The house was very much like a heritage centre with screens showing video interviews with contemporaries of the house and the era it was meant to represent. What I thought was interesting was that the portrayal of this house was so easily recognisable as a museum.

The house which formed the museum was recognisable as a 21st century house (in the film a late 21st century house, perhaps) although the museum was present in a 22nd century context. The intention may have been to demonstrate a particular museum style to a 22nd century audience. There are current examples of this, such as the Victorian gallery at Salford Museum and Art Gallery which attempts to display its artefacts and artworks as they would have been arranged in a Victorian context. This cabinet of curiosities approach is an interesting way of showing us how museums used to be, but it does run the risk of invoking all the power structures and biases of (in Salford’s case) the Victorian era; without adequate explanation, the visitor will find their engagement with the exhibition limited to a bygone representational context, preventing alternative perspectives on the artefacts or multiple interpretations.

The Interstellar house museum is surprisingly low-tech. Video screens are pretty commonplace today and of course there are a number of more sophisticated media options now available. If Christopher Nolan orchestrated that museum representation specifically then it would seem that his message is that museums will not use much in the way of digital technology in the next few decades. It seems more likely that the museum representation had less attention paid to it than the rest of the film  and, as such, perhaps we can say that perceptions of museums from outside the heritage industry are that museums are not actually very progressive. What does it mean if it seems realistic to a Holywood production team that museums of the future will not incorporate interactive screens, holograms of previous occupants or virtual tour guides?

On the other hand, there is much to be said for the phenomenological aspect of the museum in the film. The house is there to be experienced; walked through, smelled, heard, seen. Nonetheless this is quite traditional, with rope barriers reminiscent of National Trust houses. The interpretation, I feel, is closed and restricted by traditional museological approaches. The subjectivity of the video interviews on display seems to offer little when the subject matter of the house, and its significance to its previous owners, isn’t expressed or interpreted beyond simple display.

It seemed to me that the absence of digital media engagement was a signifier of how far we have yet to go for people to feel digital technology has a legitimate place in museums.

What do you think? Is it just a film?