‘A Lady’ in the Museum

Historical museum guidebooks mediate an associative network of ideas, writings, artefacts, and people. Piecing together these contingent and ephemeral encounters, and parsing original work from posthumous orders and emendation, is a difficult task that poses a number of questions. What determines how visitors move through museum spaces? Whose voices lead and regulate? Who watches?

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My paper at the upcoming Learning by the Book conference at the University of Princeton brings these questions to bear on the house and museum of the architect Sir John Soane (1753–1837), still open to the public at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Soane’s 1835 Description of the House and Museum is an experimental, collaborative work that contributes to a nascent and under-acknowledged sub-genre of guidebooks that play with the poetics of accompaniment and exchange.

The 1835 description is “embodied” with the “poetical remarks” of the novelist Barbara Hofland (1770–1844), referred to on the title page as “A Lady.” Readers are taken so far with one guide, and then back to retrace their steps with the other. My paper reads this collaborative Description alongside the friends’ manuscript correspondence, other textual accounts of women visiting the museum, and Hofland’s other work on descriptive guides to reveal an authorial collaboration that tests the boundary between official document and private account.

Reading Soane’s descriptions alongside other more overtly literary or artistic guides sheds some light on its own controversial form. In 1776, for example, an anonymous “exhibition-fancier … no great poet” published a fantastical, blank-verse account of an event at the Royal Academy.[1] The poem animates contemporary anxieties about finding one’s way around often cramped, crowded, and chaotic exhibition spaces. With none other than Venus as his “Guide,” the poem’s speaker is figured as an enraptured “witness” and immersed in a daydream in which the gallery’s paintings come to life to “rove” and “dance” as he makes his way around (p. 9):

How shall I speak what wonders I behold?
Or whither I was rapt? A thousand Scenes,
In swift succession, broke upon the sight,
And charmed the soul with sweetest Imagery.
Ye Pow’rs! I cry’d! whoe’er you are, that rule
This Paradise of blest enchantment, say,
Where am I? Deign to tell a Wand’rer where
And deign to lead him through the various Maze?

In this brief swelling of a “thousand scenes,” “marked passage[s]” through the gallery “dissolve into tracklessness” (p. 9), leaving the speaker at the whim of his mythical accomplice. In the poem, the “exhibition-fancier’s” interrogative tone (the “how,” “wither,” and “where”) and the imperative that Venus “deign” to “tell” and “lead” signal what would become a long-standing anxiety about finding one’s way around exhibition spaces, discerning order, and describing experience.

Ludahlh and Seitl, “Symphony of a Missing Room,” mixed media on paper. Royal Academy, 2014, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/lundahl-and-seitl-introduce. Used with permission.

Jump forward to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014, now housed at Somerset House, London. Lundahl and Seitl’s lucent and participatory performance piece Symphony of a Missing Room intervened in audiences’ usual viewing and navigating practices. Each member of a small audience wore sound-cancelling headphones, opaque goggles, and was led around, below, and outside of the gallery by an audio-recording and the whisperish touching of a dedicated dancer. The encounter manipulated sensorial perception as participants became themselves part of the exhibition. The grand institutional space of the Royal Academy was rendered at once precarious and deftly precise as new kinds of pressure were placed on mediating space: the weight of your feet on the floor, the smell of water, the rush of a lift, a brush of skin, and the lingering knowledge that outside of this intimate world the usual clamour of visitors, security stewards, and pop-up Pimm’s bars persists.

Both of these accounts resist the permanence or veracity of textual record. By contrast, at the Soane we can trace a long history of functional, prescriptive catalogues. We find the earliest inventory of the museum’s library compiled by C. J. Richardson in 1831 (including plans showing the locations of the bookcases); Walter L. Spiers’s 1905 extension with marginal notes on bindings, insertions, and bookplates; the inventory of artefacts begun in 1835 and completed in 1837 by George Bailey, the museum’s first curator; Spier’s extension in 1905 (including diagrams showing the position of all objects); later twentieth-century-themed catalogues of Egyptian and classical antiquities and architectural models by Margaret A. Murray, Cornelius Vermeule, and John Wilton-Ely; John Summerson’s card index; a concise catalogue on microfilm in the 1980’s; and, finally, the transfer of all above records to an online collections management system completed in 2014. The 1835 Description sits uneasily in this history as it combines poetic vision with documentary precision.

‘Monk’s Room & Gallery’, drawn by P. Williams, engraved by R. Ravell (date unknown), in John Britton, The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting (London, 1827), frontispiece, via GoogleBooks, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=VjUGAAAAQAAJ&hl.

The various attempts to organise, mediate, and describe the Soane collection to an ever increasing public extend well beyond the purview of the inventory. Instead, Soane’s own descriptions operate like Markus Krajewski’s “paper machines,” characterised by their range, hybridity, moveable parts, and continual supplementation.[2]

The early twentieth-century curator Arthur Bolton produced a Popular Description in 1919, which singularly comprised Hofland’s “remarks.” His preface announces:

The immediate value of her description is that of a first-hand appreciation by a sympathetic and impressionable lady, unquestionably responsive to the vigorous and original mentality of the Architect-Collector.[3]

Bolton sneeringly presents his readers with an “authoress” whose enthusiasm was easily “aroused,” her pen “fertile.” Little more has been written of her contributions since.

Garrett Stewart’s study of visual depictions of reading in group provides a helpful corrective to critics’ dismissal of Hofland’s contributions:

As in the idiomatic sense of seeing double, numerous scenes of reading materialise two agents of textual process where one would typically do—do fine, that is, for what it has to do: decode and envision. The other body might seem to be a mere appendage at first … but the instances of double reading that genuinely grip the viewer tend to be those … [where] [t]he annexed second body becomes a genuine supplement. In the purest examples, proximity becomes duet… . It is only when the balancing act fails, then, that the “power of the centre” gives out, the book goes into remission as a binding force, and the satellite body drifts over into portraiture.[4]

This decentralising “double reading” stands against the sense of the text as a simple (and simply gendered) juxtaposition of the enumerative and the effusive. The hybrid 1835 guide enacts a relation between the “genuine supplement” and the complete work that is particular to the “strange and mixed assemblage” of Soane’s House and Museum.

Isaac Julien’s Vagabondia (2000), a short film set in the Soane and screened at Tate Modern, pushes these tensions to the fore. This seven-minute piece depicts a black, female conservator—a reimagining of the black vagabond in Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, which hangs at the museum—surveying a folio before “careening off the walls and dancing spasmodically in a bizarrely doubled body that melts and folds back into itself.”[5] The conservator becomes herself part of the exhibition as subject, event, and witness. Julien’s film is a modern depiction of the heterotopic nature of the museum project at large: colonial, textual, and frenzied. Like the 1835 Description, its doubled frames present a reflective, bifurcated view of the museum that pushes the voices it has hitherto occluded to centre-stage.

Marianne Brooker is a PhD student in the Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck, University of London. Her Twitter handle is @curiousvolumes.

  1. “The Exhibition of Fancy,” The London Review of English and Foreign Literature, ed. William Kenrick, vol. 3 (London: Edward Cox, 1776), 406.  ↩
  2. See Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs, 1548–1921 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).  ↩
  3. Popular Description of Sir John Soane’s House, Museum and Library: Written in 1835 by Mrs Barbara Hofland, ed. Arthur T. Bolton (Oxford, 1919), 3–4.  ↩
  4. Garrett Stewart, The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text (Chicago, IL; University of Chicago Press, 2006), 235.  ↩
  5. Bridget Elliott and Jennifer Kennedy, “Haunting the Artist’s House: Sir John Soane’s Museum and Isaac Julien’s Vagabondia_”, Image [&] Narrative_, no. 16 (February 2006), http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/house_text_museum/elliott_kennedy.htm.  ↩
Suggested citation: Marianne Brooker, “‘A Lady’ in the Museum,” History of Knowledge, May 22, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/22/a-lady-in-the-museum/.