Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism

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Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism. Ruth Hoberman (Charlottesville and London: U of Virginia P, 2011) xi + 236pp.

Ruth Hoberman's Museum Trouble is an extremely convincing and farreaching treatment of the importance of museum culture to Edwardian fiction and early modernism. Her introduction provides a deft framing of her methodology--her theoretical and critical debts, her approaches to the relationship between fiction and reality, and her highly historicized treatment of museum culture. There she highlights the anxieties that seem to drive museological conflicts, such as concern about artwork being sold abroad, or questions of national identity and ownership, or methodological disputes between professional scientists, amateur collectors, and a public in need of education. She also enumerates the kinds of issues that will predominate in her study. For instance, in many of her fictional examples, she fruitfully explores a tension between the museum as an institution tending to impose order and ideology, and as a space for individualized exploration that can offer resistance or alternatives to such institutional structures. She notes museums' importance to modernity, in their growth as state-sponsored collections that enforce notions of knowledge, valuation, and citizenship. The Edwardian period (1890-1914) is the moment when museums had developed to the point-had become adequately commonplace--that they could begin to play an important role in fiction.

Museum Trouble addresses an array of instances in Edwardian fiction where museums become a site for examining underlying social and creative tensions. Through treatment of art museums, Hoberman can raise the period's concern with protecting the value of art objects from the dirtiness of the market, whether that "dirtiness" is made manifest through advertising, at the hand of Jewish art dealers, or even thanks to the risky role of private collectors. As an alternative, museums provide a neutral "space from which desire has been expelled, a space that provides a safe haven from the collector's desires, the dealer's greed, and the marketplace's uncertainties" (42). "In fact," she notes, "the whole project of the museum could be read as an effort to resacralize displayed objects to compensate for mass commodification" (41). Nevertheless, she takes care to point out continuities between museum display and that employed by department stores, shop windows, and other commercialized spaces which have, in past treatments, been distinguished as "lower" cultural venues in opposition to museum's "high" and sacred spaces. By joining in the challenges to these old dichotomies, Hoberman points to the complexity of display, viewership, consumption, and appreciation.

Hoberman's treatment of fiction similarly ranges from well-known canonical texts to works that are less familiar but nonetheless invested in museum culture in important and revealing ways. She provides rich examination of works by such writers as May Sinclair, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Gilbert Cannon, and Vernon Lee to illuminate the ways that fictional engagement with museal space can provide opportunities to examine social mores, individual inspiration, self-presentation, the vagaries of aesthetic response, and what it might mean to gain liberation from institutional pressures. Her critical attention to the interactions in these scenes between the often sterilized space of museological display and the very bodily experience of visitors seems especially important in its ability to reveal the varieties of visitor experience, despite museums' frequent attempts to ensure conformity.

The book's final chapter, "Museum Dreams," explores the dynamic in high modernist literature designated by Hoberman's title--"imaginative responses to problems posed by the turn-of-the-century museum and depicted in Edwardian fiction" (166). Part of this dynamic involves a dialectic she draws from Adorno's "Valery Proust Museum" between the museum as "an oppressive order" and as "an invitation to dream, to revive the objects through their own imaginative responses" (167). …