In the summer of 2011, the National Maritime Museum (NMM) will open its new Voyagers gallery. This gallery aims to explore the power of people stories to move and inspire visitors, as well as to raise awareness of the significance of maritime history.
Papers are now invited for a conference at the NMM in July 2011 which will take its inspiration from the focus on people stories in the new gallery. The conference will explore the changing role of the representation of individuals within museums over time, changing museological thinking, and the historiographical ‘turn to biography’ in the global context.
‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men’, Thomas Carlyle famously wrote, and indeed, historical museums have long reflected this trend. From the seventeenth century onwards there was an increasingly hagiographic approach to public figures, epitomised by the elevated status given to General James Wolfe and Admiral Lord Nelson, for example. Family pantheons or active memorialisation such as Lady Franklin’s sponsorship of portraiture of those involved in the Franklin searches added to an emphasis on biographical, ‘heroic’ histories, particularly in the nineteenth century. This in turn was reflected both in the personal relics left to museums by family donors and in the active collecting policies of those seeking to ‘represent’ the nation within their collections. Through their collecting activities and displays, museums became active participants in the ‘myth-making’ of heroes or villains. In the twentieth century, the purpose of collecting for museums often reflected ‘exemplary history’ – Sir James Caird, for example, collected objects for the nascent National Maritime Museum that would inspire visitors to ‘emulate the deeds of great men’, particularly in the context of a looming world war.
Yet there has always been a parallel process that has questioned the ‘Great Man theory’ in historical and cultural thought. Critics of the hagiographical approach included Herbert Spencer, whilst Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians sought to re-evaluate the reputations of a previous ‘heroic’ generation. Centenaries have often been opportunities to reappraise, and indeed sometimes to reinforce, ‘great’ reputations as did the 1905 and 2005 reappraisals of Nelson. In 2005, there were multiple reappraisals of the man – some reaffirming him as hero, others puncturing the myth, and still others attempting a more radical appraisal, placing him in broader imperial or international contexts than before. Most museums will have similar examples of important historical figures whose interpretation and redisplay has changed over the years, often reflecting wider academic reappraisals.
Over recent decades, however, the history of ‘great men’ has receded as the ‘silent’ voices, the marginalised, the subaltern histories, have come to the fore. This has been reflected in museological literature and practice, from the folk museum movements of the early twentieth century, to recent ‘hidden histories’ projects whose purpose is to reveal – from within existing collections – the stories of marginalised groups and disregarded individuals, to the trend towards including audiences (e.g. local communities) in creating museum displays. There has also been a shift towards encouraging the collecting of objects relating to these groups.
The conference organisers invite abstracts that could encompass either end of this spectrum (or both) – ‘great men’ to ‘silent voices’ – from contemporary and historical, and academic and museum-based perspectives. Questions that might be explored include: How have museum displays reflected changing assessments of ‘heroes and villains’ over the past two centuries? How are museums accommodating theories of subaltern histories today? Is there real value in the study and display of marginal voices? Can these sit side by side with ‘great men’ histories in the museum, and if so, how do we reconcile the two? Is current academic thinking reflected in museums in relation to ‘people stories’ (for example, is the academic example of ‘micro-histories’ an apposite one for museums)? Do existing collections constrain the kind of history of individuals that can be displayed, or do we just need more creative interpretative practice, to get the most from the collections available? How does active collecting fit in?
Abstracts of no more than 250 words with a brief biography should be emailed to Gillian Hutchinson, Curator of the History of Cartography at NMM: email@example.com by 1 November 2010.
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