I’ve already covered a very visual aspect of my trip to London last week, but I didn’t just visit the Victoria & Albert Museum. On this blog I’ve covered other educational institutions in London which are open to the public, but this one is different, it is a building steeped in history and learning, designed purely for the purpose of public education, at a time when access to state education was inconsistent.
It’s also a place that I have fond memories of as a child, in the form of school trips and family days out, mainly during the school holidays. I think that this is probably true for a lot of British people, and many more tourists and visitors.
When visiting purely for the purpose of seeing the exhibits however, much is neglected. The facade of the building is often admired (and featured in the background of many a group photo), but what about the extraordinary details of the interior? What about the colonial background of some of the objects collected? And the personal mission of the men behind the museum?
This is a record of some of my own thoughts and observations, walking around the polished halls of the museum again, as an adult, re-visiting childhood memories in this space.
Previous posts have discussed the activities of Americans in Vietnam, of Portugal’s colonial activities in the New World, and even of Europeans in north Africa. But I’m ignoring my own blind spot. What about the literal elephant in the colonial room? People tend to forget that the British Empire affected everything in Britain, from the motives of individuals, to the motifs on individual buildings. It’s not just across Africa and Asia that “colonial” architecture can be seen, designed to intimidate, to project an image of benevolence and grandeur, majestic, and oddly paternal, an enduring influence. Built to last, and to “educate” the masses, to give a lasting impression.
(main hall, with new blue whale display!) I remember having to collect my sister from this information point about 15 years ago when she got lost, separated from our grandparents, and was returned here…
Intricate, life-like cravings on pillars stemming from the main hall. All of the animals are found at an “appropriate” level, e.g, snakes at the bottom, ram at knee-waist level (depending on your height!) and apes at the very top, towards the roof.
Note the detail on the roof tiles. The scientific, Latin names of plants are recorded alongside their painted pictures. No aesthetics without educational value in this building!
How have I never noticed the Frederick Selous memorial before? It’s an incredible testament not just to the man, but to the zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age” that was Victorian Britain. Of course Selous’ skills as a hunter provided the Natural History Museum with much of the stock for its mammal collection. I should add, the plaque was actually unveiled in 1920, some decades after Selous’ death, but clearly his reputation was cemented, his fame grew into something of a literary legend. Selous was a young “ivory hunter” who had been inspired by the writings of Dr. Livingstone and others since his public schoolboy days, who grew into the embodiment of Empire. His physical appearance was evidence of his strength, and his fighting alongside Robert Baden-Powell ensured his military fame. Last but not least, Selous had strong connections to the man who (even to this day) is seen as the personification of “Empire” in Britain – Cecil Rhodes.
For further reading on “beasts, Burma and British imperialism”, including the apparently contradictory colonial wildlife legislation can be found on the intriguing blog Colonizing Animals.
It’s not just in the stuffed animal collections that a post-colonial legacy is evident. I noticed some really fascinating details on the labels of the NHM’s mineral collections;
My visit was a great reminder that museums are far from “neutral” spaces. Though we may have personal memories of them, they belong to a collective identity, not just the society which they currently exist in, but that which they were founded in. There are some objects which reach museums by dubious means, and some aspects of museum ethnography which raise moral issues which didn’t exist in previous centuries. The future of all Victorian institutions however, is a double-edged sword; on one hand they continue to educate and provide enjoyment for the general public, on the other, they are a haunting reminder of a colonial past, whose spirit lingers in them to this day.