Do House Museums Really Need Antiques?
Cecelia Eure, WPAMC ’24
On our trip to England for British Design History, I had the joy of seeing many beautiful pieces of material culture. From large collections like the Victoria & Albert museum to smaller spaces like Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, we saw a wide range of British design and antiques. In most of the spaces we entered, the public wasn’t allowed to touch the objects. While I would have loved to put my hands on all the marquetry on the furniture at the Wallace Collection, keeping a buffer between visitors and objects is the standard; visitors at Winterthur or the Philadelphia Museum of Art aren’t allowed to touch the objects either. We spend most of our time in museums looking from the outside in, rather than becoming a part of the scene.
Two of the sites we visited captured my attention not because of their collections of antiques, but because of their lack thereof: the almshouses at London’s Museum of the Home and the Birmingham Back-to-Backs.
While the period rooms in the main part of the Museum of the Home are behind barriers, the almshouses, built in 1714, are interpreted entirely using reproduction objects. While on our guided tour, we sat on the beds and made ourselves at “home” in the rooms, lit up by whatever lighting instrument was appropriate for the period being interpreted.
It was a similar story at the Birmingham Back-to-Backs, our lovely guide told us that as we walked through the different homes we were welcome to touch whatever we wanted (except in one particular space where the objects were original). For Winterthur students, this meant checking for interesting marks on the bottoms of plates, but it also meant getting the feel for the comfort of each chair.
Neither of these spaces intended to show their visitors highly prized antiques or the beauty of the long gone aristocracy. Almshouses and back-to-backs were both homes of a poorer to middling sort of person. Perhaps it is because of this identification with people of lesser means that made these museums’ interpretation seem more suited for interaction. The average person is able to enter these spaces and feel comfortable, take a seat, and warm their hands by the fire.
Truly, I don’t believe that my experience in these two museums would have been nearly as impactful had we been placed behind a barrier, unable to touch the objects. It isn’t about the provenance of antiques, it is about picturing yourself living among these objects and in these spaces. In person centered histories, do we really need antiques? I think there is certainly a time and place for house museums to opt for reproduction objects where visitors can have tactile experiences, and that just might bring the public a step closer to seeing themselves in history.