In October last year I was lucky enough to attend the tenth annual meeting of NAVSA, the North American Victorian Studies Association, in Pasadena, California. Whilst there I was awarded the Sally Ledger Memorial Travel Bursary, on the strength of the abstract I submitted to the conference for my paper 'Association objects and contagion in the nineteenth century museum'. The conference was fantastic - varied, stimulating, well organised - and in scale, beyond anything I have ever attended before! By the time I delivered my paper on the last panel of the final day, my brain was fried.
Here follows an abridged version of that paper - I do hope you enjoy.
Association objects and contagion in the nineteenth century museum
|Fig. 1. Slippers said to have belonged to Queen Anne. Image from Southwark Collections online.|
|Fig. 2. Label reads: ‘Balsam. One of the flowers thrown before the Princess of Wales & on which she stepped after witnessing a Supper at Christ’s Hospital, March 11th 1875 (picked up by H.S.C)’. Image from Southwark Collections online.|
C5571 - Cut glass chandelier-drop which was struck off by Bonaparte's Coffin upon its removal from Longwood for interment in his Tomb at St. Helena, on the day of the funeral, May the 9th 1821: and picked up at the moment of its fall by John Watts of the Honble East India Company's Ship, Thomas Grenvil, who was invited to be a spectator of the ceremony. The point is splintered off by the fall. Presented by Richard Watts Esq.
C9830. Portion of an iron cramp from the tomb of Chaucer in Westminster Abbey. Erected 1556. Presented by J.J.A. Fillinham, August 25th 1850.
These quotations come from a page in the catalogue entitled ‘memorials of events’, which also lists my personal favourites, two items which commemorate an enormous storm which occurred in the local area.
C5007. Piece of glass struck out of a window pane at 3 Dean's Row, by a Hail-Stone, during the Great Storm at Walworth. August 1st 1846.
C5008. Marble 1" 5/56" diameter, size of the hail-stone: some of them were very much larger
I’m not sure if these objects still exist - if they weren’t well labelled I can imagine they might well have gone in the bin. That’s part of what makes the objects so interesting - it’s not that you need a trained eye to understand their significance - you need to be party to their narrative, which, as we’ve seen, can so easily become detached form the object.
|Fig. 3. Label reads: 'Velvet used in covering the Coffin of Queen Caroline, August 1821.' Image from Southwark Collections online.|
They’re not really telling us anything about the world or the history of civilization, they’re not of interest in terms of design or even aesthetically pleasing. They’re not even really curiosities, in terms of the kind of medical anomalies and freaks of nature that were common in the wunderkammer. These objects are pretty mundane, they’re not even necessarily significant actors in history’s events, as, say, Austen’s writing desk might be, or, perhaps Fred Astaire’s shoes. At best they’re tangental to the events of history.
Both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible etherIn imitative magic the transmission seems to operate through a kind of synecdoche (Frazer gives examples where a person’s fingernail cuttings might be manipulated in order to affect the person) or mimesis, as when, for example, a magician simulates the act of birth with a large rock wrapped in cloth, in order to help a woman in labour.
proceeds upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other...its physical basis...is a material medium of some sort which...is assumed to unite distant objects and to convey impressions from one to the other.
The physical trace of the individual is embedded in the object, and it ‘conveys impressions’. The objects don’t stand in for the person, as a substitute for presence, but rather, they are conjoined with the person - once in contact, always in contact.
|Fig. 4. Barry.|
|Fig. 5. Label reads: 'Portion of a Silk Waistcoat of King Charles I'. Image from Southwark Collections online.|
There's a piece of Charles’ waistcoat, now framed including a little sort of object biography at the bottom which tells us where it came from and who owned it before it fell into Henry’s hands (fig. 5). Also in the Cuming collection is a locket with some hair work in it, said to be from the head of Charles (fig. 6).
|Fig. 6. Locket containing the woven hair of King Charles I and a model skeleton, which Henry says 'has been in my family's possession since time immemorial'. Image from Southwark Collections online.|
They lead us step by step through many a sad and trying scene…They awaken the recollection of many a restless spirit of that restless age. Prince and plebeian, friend and foe, the gay cavalier, the gloomy roundhead, seem to be resuscitated
These things, such as hankies dipped in the blood of Charles, or the prayer book he used on the scaffold, evoke not just the individual with whom they had contact, but a whole train of associations that Henry calls ‘recollections’ - and this isn’t limited to the objects related to Charles’ execution - he gets a similar reaction talking about things from Charles’ childhood:
The only reputed relic of 'baby Charles' I have to produce is a left mitten of point-lace,- a rare and beautiful memorial of infancy…Whether this ever covered the tiny hand which at life's latest moment was thrust out as a signal to let fall the deadly axe, must ever remain uncertain.So the objects are leading Henry toward a kind of emotive speculation. They seem to allow him access to a kind of cultural memory - they inspire an imaginative journey. Perhaps we can think about Henry collecting and treasuring these objects as keeping open the channels by which impressions can be conveyed.
|Fig. 7. Label reads: ‘Part of the Sill of the Window of Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, from which Charles I attempted to escape, 1647. Obtained August 27th, 18??’. Image from Southwark Collections online.|
Materials seems imbued by the contagious branch of sympathetic magic - once in contact with Charles, matter is always in contact, and Henry’s able to invoke that connection by simply looking upon or touching these objects. We can’t use exactly, O’Guinn’s terms from the Barry Manilow study, that the objects are ‘physical evidence of a personal relationship’, but I think that’s a useful way to think about them. These objects provide a way to imagine a connection with a person or people. They provide an access point into ‘sympathy’, to use Frazer’s term. A way to experience a feeling of connectedness to cultural memory, a sense of community with an imagined past. They present a challenge to historical objectivity, and suggest that we’re not so different at all from James Frazer’s ‘ignorant savage’.