Posted by: rebeccakilroy | November 4, 2021

Victorian Visual Culture at The Skinner Museum

Hi everyone. This isn’t an official post but I found something on campus yesterday that I thought was really cool and wanted to share with you. As Molly mentioned in her excellent review of Comedy Plus Tragedy this is a big year for the Skinner Museum. For those of you who haven’t been to the museum yet, it’s just a five minute walk off campus. Sadly it isn’t open to the public because of COVID but classes can still visit and students interested in research can contact the museum directly for access. Yesterday, there was a special 75th Anniversary tour there where they highlighted some key pieces in the collection and then let visitors roam wherever they wanted. I was surprised to find some amazing examples of Victorian visual culture!

In the back room which is set up as a study/library, there are at least nine prints of The Great Exhibition. I recognized several of them from articles we’d read in class but some were new to me. I thought this was especially interested because the way Joseph Skinner collected and arranged his museum follows a similar logic as The Great Exhibition. Objects are arranged by type and occasionally by country. There’s a mix of every kind of everyday object from almost every continent. As with the Exhibition, nothing is for sale and yet it’s displayed as valuable and makes you wonder about the price. Please excuse the poor phone-camera quality photo I got of the prints. They’re all available to view on the MHCAM website if you look in “Search the Collection”

A very poor quality photo I took of some Great Exhibition prints. Much better images are available: https://museums.fivecolleges.edu/info.php?s=Great+Exhibition&type=all&museum=mhsk&t=objects

I also went down to the basement (it’s as creepy as it sounds; there’s a collection of antique baby carriages that look so haunted). On the wall near the stairs there’s a set of four mid-19th century fashion plates. Next to them is a cartoon titled “Sailors on Shore” which appears to be from around the same time. I couldn’t make out the text of the cartoon so I’m not sure exactly what it’s meant to satirize but the way the figures are drawn reminded me of the article on Irish political cartoon styles.

The museum staff admitted that they don’t know a lot about the origin of every object. Most of their research right now is focused on tracing the origins of the Native American artifacts in the collection and trying to return them to the communities they came from. All of the Victorian visual culture objects I mentioned don’t have a clear background. Without more research they can only speculate on how and why Skinner acquired them. But the curators are very open to student research about any of the objects in the museum and happy to facilitate any study.

The fashion plates
The cartoon

Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing, Rebecca! It’s a little wild to me that just around the corner from our campus there are prints of the Great Exhibition which we studied. It’s a small world, I guess!


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