In the period room, objects aren’t displayed in isolation as they are in museum displays which favour the aesthetic nature of material culture. Instead, they’re placed into a likeness of their original surroundings. By doing this, the role of the object is reinforced, and its biography and agency explored. I wrote about the period room in an earlier post, and put forward this quotation from Shanks and Tilley (who are not fans of this type of thing at all):
The period room is not a replica but a simulacrum, an exact copy of an original which never existed. The past is transformed into its own image. (Shanks and Tilley 1992: 79)
Although Shanks and Tilley can seem about as in touch with the common people as a French aristocrat, they have a point. In this post, I want to talk about a new trend I’ve noticed in museums which have always had period rooms – the (re)constructed event. Two institutions came to my mind when I started thinking about this: Basildon Park in Berkshire, who last year staged a ‘morning after the night before’ 1950s vintage Christmas party, and the York Castle Museum, who staged a birthday party in their 1940s lounge room.
Christmas at Basildon Park
Last Christmas, I was living in Reading, in the UK, and experiencing my first ever cold Christmas. I visited Basildon Park, an 18th century mansion whose heyday was the 1950s, when the Iliffe family lived there. The interior of the house has been restored to its 18th century grandeur, but in order to highlight the 1950s occupation, the 2013 Christmas decorations were done in the theme of a Christmas party. The theme saw the staging of ‘the morning afterthe night before’, with the visitor able to imagine the party-goers asleep after the festivities.
The rooms were decorated immaculately, with every detail taken care of. Whether you think the idea is strange or not, it was done very well and I couldn’t help but think the curators had fun doing it, throwing streamers across the painfully ornate dining and lounging rooms.
The decorations used had a decidedly 1950s flavour and the presents that had been opened were authentic to the period. It looked like a fun party actually, and I kind of wished I had been invited. In that way I think it reinvigorated my interest in house museums. When I was little, I used to imagine myself in these lives and sitting on the furniture, but that faded away after possibly visiting too many of these things. Rather than wishing I had lived this charmed existence of 1800s opulence or 1950s grandeur, I just wished I’d been at the party.
As I noted in my earlier post on the period room, one of the criticisms of this type of display is that it commodifies the past and makes the visitor want to ‘buy’ the objects. Displaying the aftermath of the party at Basildon does actually seem like a salute to consumerism, with a focus on disposable wealth and luxury. Is that a bad thing? The 1950s were a time of booming consumerism after the restrictions of the Second World War, and built-in obsolescence was invented to increase purchase rates. It’s surely not the job of the museum to judge the time and the morality of extreme consumerism, so why not just have fun with it?
The family room was set up to be the scene of a present opening frenzy, with board games and toys having been opened. The radio was on, with the Queen’s speech playing, in what was a very nice use of sound. I was thinking about the way that sound could have been used more, but really, the aftermath of a party is so striking for its silence in place of laughter and music. In this case, I think that the absence of sound was a good choice.
This year, Basildon has been set up for a more traditional Christmas, but I really think the 1950s periodising decorations were a clever idea and a way to explore the dynamism of a big house and the biography of the house as well.
1940s living room, York Castle Museum
On a much smaller scale, the York Castle Museum, which I’ve written about before for its gloriously Dickensian Kirkgate reconstruction, has a room decorated to be a 1940s living room. When I visited last year, they had decorated it to be a birthday party.
It’s a small room, and so I won’t write too much about it, but I wanted to point out that this was a way of engaging repeat visitors. I was going to skim past this reconstructed room, but seeing it decorated in a different way made me stop and look again. Suddenly it had life in it, and I could imagine the family much more clearly. I don’t know if they change the theme or redesign it very often, but I do think it was a good idea. I can see that children would look on and wonder about the nature of the toys – non-mechanised, analogue and not all made of plastic. I wonder if they think the toys look boring, or actually really fun.
Has anyone been to any of these (re)constructed event period rooms? I would love to know what other museums are doing them, and if you thought they were a good idea or just a salute to consumerism. Can you even stage an event that isn’t about gifts and products?
Next week: my favourite Roman medical women