For the Victorians, the museum was a space set apart, where otherworldly objects were exhibited neatly arranged in glass cabinets. Displaying a collection like this seeks to highlight the curiosity and strangeness of an object by isolating it from the context in which it originated. The display is seen only from the cultural perspective of the person viewing it, and not in its own right. A Japanese tea bowl or Italian comb are stifled as they are deprived of the function and surroundings which form the centre of their story. This way of exhibiting collections creates a barrier between us and the object we are trying to interact with. It is difficult to fully grasp the story behind an object when it is splayed out like a dissected frog in a laboratory. A vision is encouraged which sees the visitor as separate from the object they are viewing, and by extension the process and craft of history itself.
There are places which offer an alternative to this. The Hidden 8 site Victoria Baths aims to restore the baths to full public use, the John Rylands Library collection seeks to increase public access, and old favourites such as Blist’s Hill and the Black Country Museum aim to give visitors a more direct idea of day to day life in the wake of the industrial revolution. Elizabeth Gaskell’s House too is an institution which seeks to create a space which a visitor can explore. It is a most fitting restoration which follows the values of Elizabeth Gaskell which she expressed desire that the house bring pleasure to as many people as possible. As volunteers at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House are fond of saying; “this is not a museum, it is a home.”
Spaces such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s House can offer a greater insight into history than simply seeing an object. A visit to Gaskell House is an invitation into the life and work of a person who lived, not a trophy rack. It is of vital importance to our understanding of history that we comprehend our own position within it, and the role of the museum ought to facilitate this process. Allowing a visitor to explore an intimate domestic space reminds us that we are not separate, but another part of the same story.
Arthur Roberts, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House