‘A Permanent Civilising Effect’? The Impact of Reforming Working-Class Museum Visitors in Liverpool during the 19th Century Museums and the Working Class (Routledge)

Scott, Alexander (2021) ‘A Permanent Civilising Effect’? The Impact of Reforming Working-Class Museum Visitors in Liverpool during the 19th Century Museums and the Working Class (Routledge). In: Museums and the Working Class. Routledge, Liverpool. ISBN 9780367465476 (Submitted)

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Abstract

On 18 October 1860, William Ewart MP (1798–1869) spoke at the opening of the new Liverpool public museum. Ewart was peculiarly well-positioned to commentate on the museum’s virtues: a native Liverpudlian, he had sponsored the 1845 Museums Act, which for the first time allowed town councils to levy taxation to fund municipal collections. Liverpool’s new museum – which replaced a smaller venue in operation since 1852 – thus represented another step towards meeting Ewart’s ambition that ‘every large town’ should possess ‘a museum of such character as might give sound taste to the population … and enable them to apply the skill they obtain to manufactures.’ Ewart believed that the Liverpool museum would ‘extend the benefits of education amongst the people’ and have ‘a permanent civilising effect on the character of our population.’ This chapter assesses the extent to which Ewart’s ‘civilising effect’ was borne out by using archival material (newspapers, annual reports, minute books) to evaluate working-class visitors’ experiences during the period from Liverpool museum’s foundation through to the First World War. The chapter begins by outlining the reforming intent which motivated the creation of civic museums in the mid-nineteenth century before questioning whether the reality matched the rhetoric. The second section demonstrates that in practice Liverpool museum remained a bourgeois stronghold, remaining closed when working-class men had most free time available to attend. Having outlined these points, the final section contends that barriers to entry did not go unnoticed or unopposed, and that working-class visitors occasionally found novel ways to defy the expectations of middle-class museum professionals. The chapter revisits debates about Victorian museums’ ideological functions. The opening section parallels Eilean Hooper-Greenhill and Tony Bennett’s respective arguments regarding museums’ status as instruments of state power. Developing Michel Foucault’s analyses of prisons, Hooper-Greenhill’s Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (1992) suggested that nineteenth-century museums were ‘disciplinary technologies’ which sought to produce a ‘docile,’ governable citizenry through ‘hierarchical observation, normalising judgement and examination.’ In The Birth of the Museum (1995), Bennett nuanced Hooper-Greenhill’s points by proposing that public museums and penitentiaries were the ‘Janus face of power’: where carceral institutions meted out punitive instruction and correction, museums sought to peaceably regulate and reform the working classes through (self-)surveillance and exposure to the ‘educative and civilising’ influence of middle-class morals, tastes and habits. But while it shares common ground with Bennett and Hooper-Greenhill’s analyses, the chapter ultimately sides with more recent scholarship in querying the extent that their theses stand up to archival scrutiny. As Kate Hill pointed out in Culture and Class in English Public Museums, 1850–1914 (2005), a lack of sources authored by members of the working class makes it difficult to substantiate how they actually experienced museums, meaning visitors remain ‘the great unknown’ for historians ‘despite the weight of speculation, assumptions and pedagogy targeted at them.’ Without disputing Hill’s general conclusion, the chapter endeavours to make working-class museumgoers three-dimensional and ‘knowable,’ in the process arguing that Victorian museums were more contested spaces than historiography sometimes allows.

Item Type: Book Section
Additional Information: "This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge/CRC Press in Museums and the working class on 17.09.2021,available online: http://www.routledge.com/Museums and thw working class 9780367465476 https://www.routledge.com/Museums-and-the-Working-Class/Chynoweth/p/book/9780367465476
Subjects: A General Works > AM Museums (General). Collectors and collecting (General)
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Divisions: Institutes and Academies > Institute of Education and Humanities > Academic Discipline: Humanities
Depositing User: Alexander Scott
Date Deposited: 08 Apr 2021 08:36
Last Modified: 05 May 2021 08:05
URI: https://repository.uwtsd.ac.uk/id/eprint/1624

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