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Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum (Section I HISTORY OF THE SENSES)

Journal of Social History 2007, Summer, 40, 4

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In The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass in the British Museum H.M. Bateman depicts the story of a boy who is arrested for breathing on one of the display cases in the British Museum. (1) While purely fictional, this picture book highlights the popular notion of the museum as inviolable and untouchable, a site of pristine preservation where even a breath might have damaging effects. Many contemporary museums are challenging the traditional 'hands off' ethos of the museum with innovative, interactive exhibitions. (A recent example is the 'Touch Me' exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.) (2) Yet such exhibitions are still exceptions to the rule of sensory restraint which is generally expected to govern the behavior of museum visitors. Artefacts for the most part are only to be seen, not felt, smelt, sounded and certainly not tasted. How intrinsic, however, is this rule of sensory restraint to the museum? How did visitors to the first museums behave? What were their sensory expectations and experiences? (3) One of the most difficult subjects for an historian to investigate is that of the corporeal practices of earlier eras. Ways of walking, eating, smelling and touching, while laden with social significance, are often so taken for granted that they are little commented on by their practitioners. It takes a very thorough observer to record the ordinary bodily motions of daily life. Often it is in the descriptions of travellers, who find local customs foreign and therefore worthy of note, that one comes across the best descriptions of the corporeal customs of past times. Thus from a Frenchman's account of his eighteenth-century visit to England we learn that in the House of Commons at that time the customary practice was for orators to stand "with their legs straddling, one knee somewhat bent, and one arm extended, as if they were going to fence." (4) Another potential source of information is the reminiscences of individuals who have lived long enough to have seen the customs of their youth pass away and therefore make note of them as curiosities. From the recollections of the long-lived Mary Berry, for example, we learn that Horace Walpole walked on tiptoe according to the custom of elegant eighteenth-century gentlemen. Another source of information, and one which was richly mined by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process, is the etiquette guide. Such guides reveal both contemporary ideals of proper behavior among the classes to which they are addressed and certain common practices which were deemed to require correction. For example, the frequency with which readers of medieval instructions are advised to clean their hands before dipping them into the communal pot indicates that people frequently ate with unwashed hands. (5)

Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum (Section I HISTORY OF THE SENSES)
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  • Category: History
  • Published: 22 June 2007
  • Publisher: Journal of Social History
  • Seller: The Gale Group, Inc.
  • Print Length: 41 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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