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National Art Museum Practice as Political Cartography in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Christopher Whitehead


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This chapter will explore one of the key characteristics of nineteenth-century national museums in Britain: that of mapping the world, both geographically, epistemologically and socially. I will argue that the national museum provided an institutional technology for mapping, while in its morphology it was, literally, a multi-dimensional map which constructed knowledge spatially, connectively and divisively, to represent cultural and natural hierarchies and relations and differences between things and between people. The chapter begins with a brief exploration of the notion of the museum as map by examining the use of cartographic technology within the context of institutional collecting and display of material cultures. Then, looking at the network of national museums in mid-nineteenth-century London, the chapter will discuss the importance of geography, mobility, travel, cartography and appropriation of objects within the organising structures of curatorial practice and knowledge construction with predominant reference to the notion of art and the idea of the work of art. Within this, the paper will also look at the nature of national museum representations of the home nation. Where was Britain’s place on the map? And what were the cartographical politics of national othering and selfing? In relation to the latter the paper will also consider the national museum as a cartographic technology for social mapping through which, in a post-1832 context, the social and moral order of the new British electorate was plotted. The chapter will conclude with a account of the apparently weak expressions of nationhood in mid-century national museums, enabling a view of Britain as cultural cartographer rather than as obvious cultural territory, and opening up a way of discussing the museum as space for theorising, whether explicitly or not, the complex political relations between places, cultures and peoples past and present.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Whitehead C

Editor(s): Knell, S., Aronsson, P., Amundsen, A.B., Barnes, A.J., Burch, S., Carter, J., Gosselin, V., Hughes, S.A., Kirwan, A.

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: National Museums: New Studies from around the World

Year: 2011

Pages: 105-122

Publisher: Routledge

Place Published: London

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9780415547741