Victorian Literature Museums
Barbara Black
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0187


The nineteenth century gave birth to a new type of institution, the civic museum. While the human inclination to collect may be transhistorical, transcultural, and, indeed, fundamental to us as a species, Victorian England offers a distinctive case study regarding projects of civic, large-scale acquisition—that is, collecting with the objective of exhibiting and display. The building of museums became a central cultural enterprise in 19th-century England. Museums and their construction were indispensable to the construction of the nation’s identity as the century’s premier global power, with London emerging as a world city at this time. The Victorian cityscape cannot be understood without considering the museum and its ties to modernity, growth, and expansion—its institutional aim to build a citizenry befitting the politically powerful nation, to foster a strong and binding sense of citizenship and national belonging. The century’s many public museums were a consequence of post–French Revolution energies directed toward the democratization of luxuries, specifically the transforming of formerly private troves of the nobility, aristocracy, and church into public collections that were meant to be enjoyed by a wide and diverse public. The Industrial Revolution also fueled Victorian museum culture, developing construction capacities necessary for large-scale buildings as well as reproduction technologies that permitted collections to grow by way of plaster casts and copies. In this age of builders, the public museum speaks to the Victorian investment in engineering most broadly and, more specifically, in a built environment that features modern comfort and convenience. Victorian science, developing conceptions about knowledge and education, and the growing popularity of tourism fueled as well the museum-building enterprise. In particular, such disciplines as ethnography, historiography, archaeology, art history, and Darwinian evolutionary biology relied upon collecting. A Victorian ideal was the universal survey museum, which—much like its sister institutions of the zoo, the botanical gardens, and the panorama—aimed to contain all the world under one roof. In this regard, Victorian museums operated by means of a distinctive blend of miniature and gigantic, allowing visitors a potent form of mental travel through both time and place. A pillar in the public sphere, civic museums were committed to education and outreach; many of Victorian London’s grand museums promoted the founding of circulating or satellite museums, which brought the knowledge, pleasures, and instruction that arise from curation and exhibition to both the provinces and colonies.

General Overviews

The rise of postcolonial and cultural studies as well as historicist criticism in the 1980s and 1990s produced a wave of scholarship on the museum that has sustained its momentum into the early twenty-first century. Said 1978 provides an indispensable framework for the study of 19th-century museums. The deep pleasures of collecting and curating are trenchantly explored by Benjamin 1969 and Stewart 1992. Stewart’s chapters on the miniature and the gigantic are illuminating alongside her more overtly relevant two-part final chapter on the souvenir and the collection. Bennett 1997 is a major study, frequently cited by others working on museology and museum history, whether in the fields of museum studies or Victorian studies. Altick 1978 remains a foundational work for scholars interested in Victorian England’s burgeoning visual culture; both knowledgeable and entertaining, with abundant images, this massive study recounts the shift from an “age of exhibitions” to an “age of public museums.” Altick’s research dedicates special attention to the panorama and diorama as influential visual forms for Victorian museology. Chapters 18, 20, and 21 directly examine the ties between empire-building and Victorian British exhibition culture; the study’s capacious range includes the Hottentot Venus, Giovanni Belzoni’s acquisitions in Egypt, and the East India Company’s museum. Foucault is the necessary theorist when it comes to institutional cultures and space—shedding light on the constellation of the archive, power, and knowledge. Though he produced no book-length study of the museum (as he did the prison, clinic, and asylum), Foucault 1986 provocatively explores the museum as a heterotopia. Scholarship in urban studies, such as Boyer 1994, has foregrounded the museum as a focus of critical attention. The modern city is unimaginable without the museum situated within its skyline. Boyer examines varied spectacles and visual forms ranging from photography, advertisement, mapping, urban collections, and promenades, all of which provide continuity between past and present, order, organization, and invented traditions essential to a thriving public sphere. The intimacy between museums and narrative—those narratives generated by museums and their curators as well as the literary imaginings the museum, in turn, inspires—makes the museum an intriguing site for literature scholars. Black 2000 offers a blend of cultural criticism, social history, and literary analysis to examine the museum as a centripetal idea for the century. Bazin 1967 is an early resource in museum studies, and Adorno 1967 is representative of the Frankfurt School’s critique of museum culture.

  • Adorno, Theodor. “Valéry Proust Museum.” In Prisms. By Theodor Adorno, 175–185. London: Neville Spearman, 1967.

    A provocation that contends museums are where art goes to die. Begins memorably by foregrounding the phonetic linkage between “mausoleum” and “museum.” A comparative engagement with the reflections of Valéry and Proust regarding museum culture, as an examination of the culture industry. First published 1955.

  • Altick, Richard. The Shows of London. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1978.

    Available only in hardcover and, therefore, costly, but widely available in libraries. Covers a vast historical range (1600–1862), charting the movement from antiquarians’ cabinets to public museums. See the first two chapters and chapter 32, which focuses on the apogee of London’s exhibition history: the Great Exhibition of 1851. Altick is a superb social historian whose account reanimates the many motives behind exhibition culture—instruction, entertainment, curiosity among them.

  • Bazin, Germain. The Museum Age. New York: Universe Books, 1967.

    An early work on the history of the museum as an institution, a good introduction to museums’ centrality to the nation-state and an account of art patronage and collection. Amply illustrated. Written by a curator at the Louvre from the 1930s on into the 1960s.

  • Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited by Hannah Arendt, 59–67. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

    An evocative meditation on the pleasures of the collector—from modernity’s most brilliant collector of cultural bits, aphorisms and quotations, and fragments from the debris of everyday existence. The relationship of collector to their possessions is charged with the potent allure of acquisition, the triumph of order and organization, and the promise of renewal that transmissibility ensures. An extraordinary piece of prose that achieves poetic richness. First published 1931.

  • Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    An influential work on the museum and acculturation. Through “showing and telling,” museums convey meaning and values; the politics of display and museal representation reflect and shape prevailing perceptions and ways of knowing. Of particular interest here is the heterogeneity of items collected and the taxonomic order museums assert. An examination of the museum and its affiliations with fairs and international exhibitions, this study focuses on Australia, America, and Britain.

  • Black, Barbara. On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

    This literary-cultural examination investigates why, and for what ends, Victorians collected with such zeal. To capture a range of institutional sites within the 19th-century grand metropolis of London, this book focuses on Sir John Soane’s house-museum, the Natural History Museum, and the exemplary South Kensington. Like narrative, museums construct wholes from fragments. Textual analysis ranges from poetry to novels to boys’ adventure fiction; from gothic tale to high realism.

  • Boyer, M. Christine. The City of Collective Memory: Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

    A fascinating study of heritage and memory in the urban environment that is particularly interested in the 19th-century city’s spectral legacies. Highly theoretical, suitable for graduate-level and professorial readership. Boyer construes the city as work of art, spectacle, panorama, theater, museum—yet actual museums are also of interest as sites of cultural production and consumption, permanence as well as change. For direct engagement with the museum, see chapter 4.

  • Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986): 22–27.

    DOI: 10.2307/464648

    Offers the generative concept of the “heterotopia” as a governing rubric for exploring 19th-century Western culture. The two heterotopic spaces of the library and museum function as conceptual frameworks or containers for fragments transformed into narrative wholes and comprehensible shapes. In keeping with Foucault’s interest in institutional cultures and spaces, the circulation of power, and the social-political utility of surveillance and information technologies. An essential text for museum studies.

  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.

    This field-defining study of the Occident’s use of the “East” as other is a Foucaultian examination of the ties between discourse and power. Charts the imperial expansion of the European West in the nineteenth century, with some strategic analysis of the museum as exercising systematizing control over an unknown Orient—a counter-concept that then shapes and defines the West. Said’s key question is “how does one represent other cultures?”

  • Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1220n8g

    A compelling examination of the interconnections among objects and material culture, bodies and embodiment, and narrative—which Stewart calls a “structure of desire.” Stewart is interested in collections’ narrativizing elements of organization and categorization, control and containment, and the seriality of individual collectibles as well as the backstory of acquisition. Stewart cites Mikhail Bakhtin, Gaston Bachelard, and Jean Baudrillard as her influences.

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