Objects of utility: cultural responses to industrial collections in municipal museums 1845-1914

Robert Snape


Between 1845 and 1914 several municipal museums in Great Britain established an industrial collection of objects relevant to local manufacture. The origins of these collections are found in the 1830s and the reform of design education. Industrial collections assigned an economic function to museums and were contested by critics who maintained that museums should be concerned primarily with fine rather than applied art. It is argued that curatorial decisions on the adoption of industrial collections can be evaluated with reference to contemporary debates on art, design education and the relative values of liberal and applied knowledge. Through case studies of the municipal museums of Birmingham and Preston, this paper assesses contrasting curatorial responses to industrial collections. Adopting Matthew Arnold’s categories of Hebraism and Hellenism as an exploratory framework, it concludes that industrial collections represented materialistic values associated with Hebraism that were directly opposed to the spiritual values associated with Hellenism.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Robert Snape

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360