Blue: Museums in London

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Museums!

Blue pins represent the museums I visited throughout the two weeks of my trip. There are four blue pins on the map: The British Museum, Museum of London, National History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Four famous museums catering to various ages and visitors, all defining space and Englishness with their contents.

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The Museum of London and National History Museum were both geared to a younger audience. The main exhibit I experienced in The Museum of London used students (both younger and older) to help create and make the experience more contemporary. Glass cases were filled with historical facts next to bottles of sriracha sauce and cell phones, showing us what we would potentially trade nowadays. The National History Museum was packed with young and set up to be easily accessible to children. Everything was colorful and very visual; many of the exhibits had audio and video to explain it’s significance instead of the traditional signs to read. Children could interact and learn from most of the exhibits. To be honest, I felt out of place and awkward in that particular museum. I didn’t fit in or learn anything I didn’t already know.

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British Museum

The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are examples of the heterotopias that Michel Foucault describes in “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias”:  “Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit, the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.” The Victoria and Albert Museum is a heterotopia because it houses an immense amount of art (over 4.5 million objects!) from around the globe. Objects are placed next to each other that weren’t intended on being categorized together, but are preserved there to be on display for museum goers. Time and space have been broken down, controlled and ultimately erased by how the museum is laid out.

The British Museum, in my opinion, is the best example of a heterotopia. Historically significant artifacts are owned by the museum (the Parthenon sculptures, the Rosetta stone, sarcophagi, etc.) and on display for everyone to see. There is a piece of history from just about every important time period, all kept under one roof. Again, time is no longer linear when one walks through the museum, creating a heterotopia. Though I only visited four (five museums in total, but one isn’t mapped) the amount of museums and their importance defines Englishness. All four of the museums are there to show museum goers the power of the British and to teach people things that the British find important. The National History Museum and Museum of London might be geared towards a younger audience, but they are still displaying the power relations to the children. The Museum of London displays an incredible amount of preserved, animatronic, and reconstructed animals, showing off the technology and the knowledge the museum has (and London, of course). Same goes for the National History Museum, with it’s futuristic feel and high-tech displays. These museums perpetuate the image of the all powerful England that has everything; new technology, ancient pieces of history, more knowledge than anyone else has. A museum goer is meant to experience the museum and be awestruck and overwhelmed by the presentation. My experience in these museums was both enjoyable and critical. Once I caught on to what felt like the “real” purpose of the museums, I saw them in a different light. If you ever get a chance to visit any of these places, think about what the museums are really saying :P!

Revisiting my Big Questions

The view from my desk at the library

Courtney Loiacono
Writing this post from a desk at the Smithtown Public Library

I’d like use this blog post to explore a few of the questions I posed before the trip that I believe I can now address after taking the course.

 “After getting a better understanding of the physical spaces, how do we think that the architects intended the places they created to be used? How are they used in the literature?”
This question was one that I feel was definitely in the back of my mind during our time in London. One of the first places we explored, the British Library, was a place where the intent of the architect and the current owners/managers were quite evident. The only places open to the public were the small museum/exhibit on the first floor, the hallways and staircases leading to the different collections (yet not the collections) and the gift shop. A library, a place we expect to be able to access knowledge and have freedom to pursue what we want to learn and where, is quite restricted. We see the British Library being used by the narrator in A Room of One’s Own, where the literature in the space is almost all work produced by men. Yet it’s the library that the narrator is able to access, unlike that of the college she visits in the beginning of the essay. Nowadays, the space is set up so that you need a library card to access the collections. Understood. I’ll go and sign up for a library card then.

Signing up for a library card was quite tedious. The man at the desk informed me that I needed to list four specific texts I would be looking for and using with my library card, which collections I was interested in, and had to show my passport. Then I was briefly interview by another man in the back of the room, had my picture taken, and was finally given my library card. (Sadly, I didn’t have time to return to the library and actually use it, but it does make quite a fun souvenir!) Expanding on my initial question, I’d like to consider not only the initial intent of the architect(s) when creating these spaces, but also those currently in power and control of the space and how they allow others to use it. Though the description isn’t very in depth, Woolf’s writing of the library leads me to believe that it was easier to access and use the library the way it was intended to be used. Nowadays, one’s movement is more restricted and monitored. If I wanted to go into the library, I cannot bring a bag along with me. I must check my bag in one of the cloakrooms and then enter the collection. Another interesting piece of architecture in the library was the collection of books in the center (I can’t remember which king’s collection it was) that is encased in glass. The book collection is simply there to look at with wonder. What did the architect behind that intend? Possibly to remind us of the unattainable wealth of knowledge that the owner of the collection had, instill some sort of pride in us or marvel at the superiority of the owner, or something along those lines. Regardless, the architect secluded an enormous collection of literature for people to merely look at and admire, which is the opposite of what a library should be used for. The knowledge s unattainable and exists in seclusion from the public. (This is true for many of the places we visited, where places were constructed to be seen but not to touch or absorb).
Both writers are stressing the importance of studying different parts and sides of space. A few lines down, he continues saying that ‘global space established itself in the abstract as a void waiting to be filled…How this could be done was a problem solved only later by the social practice of capitalism.’ I’m not sure exactly how, but I’d like to discuss the connection between space and capitalism when study our literature.”

For the most part, I got less on the capitalism present in these spaces and shifted my focus on the power relations present in spaces. Yes, those two go hand in hand, but for the purpose of the class and this post, power relations was more evident to me. We discussed a lot about what fills the rooms in the British Museum. Artifacts from around the world are brought together in the massive space that is the library. Taking a step back for a moment, the location of the library is just as interesting as what fills it. It’s a massive space in the middle of the quaint (at least I felt it was one of the more quaint parts of London), surrounded by black gates. I felt it wasn’t overwhelming from the street, walking past it or around it while going to one of the cafes nearby or the tacky gift shops. But the second I stepped foot inside of the gates, the perspective completely changed. The sheer size of the building filled me up, the grandeur of the structure became apparent. My body finally realized that this was an important building. Walking towards the steps and the columns near the door was one of the first times I felt “damn, I’m in London!”

Now back to what fills the rooms. Important pieces such as the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Marbles, sarcophagi and countless other artifacts from centuries ago are what make up the exhibits. Again, we discussed how this collection of important pieces from various parts of the world is collected together and presented to show the power and importance of the British. But where does capitalism come in? Many of the pieces were sold to the British Museums, putting a price on what many would consider invaluable parts of history that cannot have a price, once again proving the ultimate power of the British. Most of these observations seems obvious. Something else slipped my mind and became evident only this morning is while I was getting ready to come to the library. I was packing my backpack and had my keys on the table when my mother came over and started looking at my car keys. While in London I bought myself a few new key chains, one of the ever-popular red phone box and the other from the British Museum. My mother commented “ah, how cute!” upon seeing the phone box, to which I smiled and thanked her. She stopped for a second and examined the second key chain. Now, hanging from this key chain is a sarcophagus, a sphinx cat, a third Egyptian symbol and a little plate that reads “The British Museum.” After a moment or two, my mother looks up and asks, “but why did you buy something with Egyptian stuff on it if you were in London?” The questions was a little shocking, to be honest. But it made sense. Tying it back into my original question, I believe this is a good example of how capitalism enters different spaces.

My key chains.

My key chains.

Another great example of capitalism filling up space became evident during our trip led by Katrina to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Without paying the fee, we were only allowed to access and view a slither of the space, unless we were attending one of the church services. So either our religious belief or our money granted us access to this magnificent and important structure, is that it?

The rest of my questions were sort of addressed during the two weeks, but more importantly the topics I focused on shifted. Something Katrina kept pointing out on our walks is how new structures and places kept being build right next to or on top of old structures. This interplay between the old and the new was present throughout the readings, especially when we discussed the idea that time is not linear but simultaneous. I won’t go too in depth in this particular blog post, for that’s a concept I’m planning on exploring in my final project! The only other big question I have at the moment is when the hell can I go back to London?!
If any other questions arise, I’ll be sure to post them here 🙂