19 July 2010

Museums and modernism

I visited Smallhythe Place last week. It's the house where Ellen Terry lived, and now houses a museum about her and the theatre of her era. It's an old-fashioned museum, which means it's curiously modernist.

I mean it's like the Cantos. Individual objects are displayed together, with no, or little, interpretation. You have to make up your own narrative to connect them, to put them into a story. Current museum practice is not like this. For example, the Rude Britannia display at Tate Britain has a commentary in the form of Roger Mellie cartoons. Which is joky, but it does provide contextualising information.

It's a long time since I've been to the Horniman Museum, but its natural history collection used to be displayed in the old style: lots of specimens in cases.

What these old museum displays presuppose is that someone else will provide the narrative. Either the visitor will have the knowledge to put each piece in context, or, more likely, an expert will provide a commentary. The expert might be a teacher accompanying a class visit, or a museum guide.

So, if we continue to see the Cantos as a museum of curiosities, it's an old-fashioned museum. Either we need to know as much as Pound, and recognise the objects and put them in their context, or we need a guide, to gently lead us through the exhibition and show us how it goes together.

How could this picture apply to modernist poetry of a less learned nature? I suppose the chances are increased that a reader can provide their own context. I'll look out for examples.

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