'Feeling Things in the Museum'
Curatorial and Research Fellow
ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800)
The University of Melbourne
‘“Now do you know how I feel?” Mrs. Gereth asked when in the wonderful hall, three minutes after their arrival, her pretty associate dropped on a seat with a soft gasp and a roll of dilated eyes.’
In 1897, amidst the Aesthetic movement’s complex meditations upon the power of objects, Henry James wrote 'The Spoils of Poynton', his most detailed exploration of the passionate emotions that a perfect collection could evoke. ‘Poynton,’ we are told, ‘was the record of a life. It was written in great syllables of colour and form, the tongues of other countries and the hands of rare artists. It was all France and Italy, with their ages composed to rest….’ While James’s novel takes as its focus a private, domestic collection, his treatment of the intense emotional relationship between people and things offers a useful parallel for the museum context, within which the forces of aesthetic appreciation, sensory stimulation, imagination and memory are equally present. The notion of feeling, in all of its definitions, has arguably always played a part in the development and display of collections; however, it is only relatively recently that our affective relation to the material objects of the past has become the focus of academic attention. In the curiously hybrid space of the museum, the requirements of education must be balanced against those of aesthetics, the desires of visitors against those of curators and conservators, and amongst all of this are the needs of the objects themselves, often never intended for mass exposure. Drawing upon case studies of exhibitions that have consciously addressed the question of feeling, as well as recent experience curating an exhibition around the theme of love at the National Gallery of Victoria, this lecture will consider the capacity of objects to materialize emotion, and the associated complexities of interpreting and presenting these objects in a contemporary museum context.
Angela Hesson is a curator and academic currently appointed by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) to curate an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria on the theme of love. Prior to her appointment at CHE, she was employed as a lecturer in Art History and Literature at The University of Melbourne and at La Trobe University. From 2010–2013, she worked as a curator at The Johnston Collection, a Melbourne house museum specialising in seventeenth- to nineteenth-century fine and decorative art. Much of her research to date has focused upon theories of fetishism and their relationship to femininity, and to practices of collection and connoisseurship.
Recorded on 25 October 2016
The University of Queensland Art Museum