The period room and the (re)constructed past

Many museums use the ‘period room’ in order to communicate the use of material culture. In the period room, the material culture is placed into a likeness of their original context as a way to reinforce their role in daily life. This has been an engaging way to communicate low-status lives, with reconstructions of kitchens, farm houses and ‘ordinary’ people’s houses dotted around the museums of the world. In institutions like the British Museum, the objects are elevated to the level of art: their usefulness is not relevant, their context is not relevant, and their relationship with reality is certainly not relevant.

Shanks and Tilley have been negative about the period room, saying that it is a false likeness:

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)

The period room

The period room isn’t new (or even 90s, as it gets called sometimes) but dates to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was a way of recontextualising objects and fostering greater engagement with the audience. As a way of communicating to young audiences that the objects they see in museums were used by real people, it is effective.

Kirkgate, York Castle Museum

Victorian shop front at the York Castle Museum
Victorian shop front at the York Castle Museum

The York Castle Museum has embraced the period room and thought about what was outside it, down the street from it and around the corner from it. The fabulous Kirkgate Victorian Street has evolved over the last few decades and, interestingly, has grown to include low-status lives. The focus is overwhelmingly on the commercial life of the street, with shop fronts open (some manned by staff to provide further information) to people to wander through, point at and talk about together.

There have been many criticisms of the period room. One of the major criticisms is that it is seen to commodify the past to the extent that the visitor wants to ‘buy’ the past( Shanks and Tilley 1992: 79). This obviously comes to the front of your mind as you wander through open Victorian shops at Kirkgate.


Inside one of the shops at the York Castle Museum
Inside one of the shops at the York Castle Museum

One of the other issues concerning the period room is the fact that every object must be recognisable to the visitor. There are not usually any labels or captions, which leaves the visitor responsible for recognising function and use. Whether this means that the curator only includes material culture that is recognisable to the modern visitor is something I can’t say. If any curators are reading this, would you consider including an object that you doubt a visitor would understand?

Criticising the period room seems to be quite fashionable, and I don’t think it’s always all that fair. True, some are stuck in outdated displays, gathering dust and dead flies, but it does seem that some are trying to convey the dynamism that is a current trend in the communication of the past. Kirkgate does this particularly well. Sound is used, along with lighting, to give a sense of time passing. Birds herald the dawn, and the street lighting goes off as footsteps, trotting of horses and voices of merchants are played.

Something I always look out for in a period room is human drama and tension. So often a display will give an idea that the past was full of stuff, all sitting clean and ready for use, with no human emotion ever present. Have you ever lent a book to a friend who hasn’t returned it, and you’ve seen it on their shelf when visiting? Didn’t it make you angry even though it was just a book on a shelf? Objects in real life are divisive, even the worthless, replaceable ones. Kirkgate has some of the drama with angry voices heard, and a low-status alley way presented with slum rooms set out. In those rooms, mould is on the walls, damp patches are on the ceiling, and the sound of a hacking cough is heard. Unpleasant? Yes! And rightly so. The past was very unpleasant for a lot of people. For everyone in their Sunday best, there were dozens more in rags.

Churchill War Museum

So from a Victorian street full of the bustle and drama of ordinary life to the Churchill War Museum, a place that only exists because of drama and tension. For the majority of the Second World War, the government headquarters were underground in tunnels and small rooms under Westminster. Open to the public, the war rooms have been recreated in the actual landscape the events took place in, albeit behind thick perspex.

The visitor descends to the tunnels and is given an audio guide-a device resembling a large remote control with a speaker in the top. Visitors are free to move through at their own pace, but the layout forces a particular pathway and makes going back very difficult. Audio guides are a pet peeve of mine. While I acknowledge that they can communicate in different languages and to children, thereby reaching a larger audience, that audience is presented with a replicable, standardised experience they share with everyone and also with no one. People moved through the war rooms listening to snippets of Churchill’s greatest hits, heard factoids about the rooms they were looking through perspex into, and shuffled along in a line, never able to react to anything with anyone they were with. Parents couldn’t interact with children, friends couldn’t stop and talk over anything seen, and that interaction was absent. I turned mine off for a few minutes to watch people, and saw people silently shuffling along what effectively became a conveyer belt corridor pretending no one was in their way.

The biggest disappointment with this museum is the squandered potential. Here you have the actual landscape, the rooms that some of the biggest decisions of the 20th century were made in, rooms filled with scared, emotional people anxiously waiting for news. Those emotions could be harnessed by the museum to echo the shared experience those people had. We could have heard audio of the building shuffling, of footsteps rushing past, of people barking out orders. We could have reacted together, as they did in the war.

An officer, mid-phone call, at the Churchill War Rooms
An officer, mid-phone call, at the Churchill War Rooms

In this image, an officer sits holding a phone, passing information to a colleague. The content, drama, excitement of this moment are totally absent. Usually in a period room mannequins aren’t present, leading to the visitor projecting themselves into the moment. The mannequins here mean you don’t have to imagine quite so much, but are totally lifeless, and so is the scene.

The material culture is interesting, the maps with pins pushed in are a poignant reminder that history isn’t fixed, but fluid. Pencils, ribbon, pins and hand-written signs about not moving anything are a startling lesson to the digital generation that a world war could be conducted without the internet or computers.

Material culture sits, abandoned but carefully positioned, at the Churchill War Rooms
Material culture sits, abandoned but carefully positioned, at the Churchill War Rooms

Sometimes the period room is an effective means of communicating that the past was a real place, with real people using objects the way we do. It tells young visitors that the past isn’t just something that happened, the past tense, but was real and was happening just as the present is. The Churchill War Rooms, however, are a sad glimpse into someone’s memory of an old work place. They have the same emotional impact as a description of someone’s dream. Interesting, but distant.

Next week: Stonehenge, the icon of prehistoric Britain

Works cited

SHANKS, M. & TILLEY, C. Y. 1992.Re-constructingArchaeology: Theory and Practice, London, Routledge.