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June 12, 2012

Dickens and London exhibition @ Museum of London, June 2012

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The Museum of London has been celebrating the Dickens bicentenary with an exhibition on the author's connections with the city. Given the wealth of associations betweeen Dickens and London in his life, works and on-going legacy, this exhibition promised much and it certainly did provide an impressive range of material relating to Dickens and Victorian London. Ultimately, though, I felt this didn't quite deliver what it could have done.

We began with biography, looking at paintings and photographs of Dickens, his friends and family, before moving into the main part of the exhibition which was organised thematically, commencing with Dickens and the theatre. Playbills, puppets, a model theatre and costumes illuminated Dickens's lifelong interest in the theatre, and playbooks of theatrical adaptations of Dickens's works demonstrated the two-way direction of this engagement.


"Dickens's Dream"; Robert William Buss, 1870

From there it was on to Dickens and the home, where we were told about Victorian ideals of domesticity and Dickens's strength of attraction to the idea of the home. The painting Dickens's Dream was brought to life in an animated film, whilst Dickens's letters, a selection of household objects, and contemporary paintings provided visual illustration of the ideas being raised. A section on Progress had a particular focus on transport and communication technology - a particular highlight for me was a wonderful selection of photographs showing "the coming of the railway" into city spaces - and we finished with Life and Death, exploring Victorian ideas of mourning and Dickens's last years.

Throughout, many (if not most) of the artefacts on display were from the Victorian period more generally, rather than specifically related to Dickens, providing a visual exploration of Dickens's life and times. This wasn't altogether a bad thing: amongst the objects on display were an ornately carved piano and model railway train that were displayed at the Great Exhibition, pieces of telegraph cable, all of which were rather more interesting than many of the truly "Dickensian" objects - whilst his writing desk made for reasonably interesting viewing, Dickens's soup ladle did not. The paintings also offered interesting points for discussion and nicely drew out some of the links being made throughout the exhibition. It was also especially valuable to see so many manuscript and proof copies of the novels: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and David Copperfield were among the copies on display, and whilst these were safely stowed behind glass cabinets, plastic-bound replica versions of the periodical issues were available at benches throughout. I particularly enjoyed seeing the performance copies of the texts that Dickens used in the readings he gave in his later years: a copy of Oliver Twist was heavily annotated with Dickens's performance notes, "Action!", "Mystery", "Terror to the end!"


Whilst this was all nicely done, I felt that the links between the material on display, and between Dickens and London, could have been much more strongly drawn out. The visual material made for pleasant viewing, and gave a decent enough overview of Victorian life, but it didn't feel like it particularly added anything to the idea of Dickens and his works; with the exception of the Dickens letters and manuscripts, this could have been any exhibition about Victorian life. Similarly, the connections between Dickens and London felt underexplored; much of this could have been an exhibition about Dickens more generally, and there was little that really explained what this was adding specifically to an understanding of Dickens and London. I felt this all lacked an overarching narrative that really drew out the potential connections of the objects and texts on display, and that used these objects to offer something more to the understanding of Dickens.

I suspect that this lack of narrative arose from a focus on the design of the exhibition space which sought to "recreat[e] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections" so as to take the viewer "on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired his writings." The dark, dimly-lit space was decorated with big letters, moons and stars hanging from the ceiling, supposedly aiming to replicate the idea that we were going on one of Dickens's famous night-walks around the city. It was a nice touch but added little to the experience; in so far as it attempted to provide a narrative journey through the exhibits this was definitely a case of style over substance.

The exhibition made for interesting viewing, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed with what the exhibition had achieved, and the sense that it could have been more given the subject at hand. This was rather emphasised when we went on to explore the rest of the Museum of London: it is a rich resource of artefacts from the prehistoric period to the present day, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century collections which I spent most time in present a wealth of material and much more successfully draw together themes, ideas, and narratives. Although the Dickens and London exhibition has now closed, I'd highly recommend a visit to the rest of the museum.

December 16, 2011

Dickens's dark London

Follow-up to "Can you shew me the places?"; Dickens 2012 and literary tourism from Charlotte's Research blog

Following on from my previous musings on Dickens 2012 and literary tourism, this new apptakes the literary tour to a new level: an interactive map of Dickens's "dark London" which promises to "take users on a journey through the darker side of Charles Dickens’ London". In light of my previous post, this suggested some similar questions about the literary tourism and the mapping of represented/historical spaces onto contemporary "real" spaces. By virtue of its nature, though, an ipad app removes what I previously perceived as a crucial component of the literary tour: its opportunity for a mobile experience of history and the author.

I was intrigued, then, as to what the app would deliver; and the answer is, not an awful lot. The basis of the app is an interactive map of London, in which an 1862 map is overlaid onto a contemporary satellite image; a sliding bar at the bottom of the page allows you to move gradually from one to the other, along with the usual touch-screen navigation and zoom tools around both of the maps. For someone who loves maps, it's nice to have an 1862 city map to hand (although the app as a whole is frustratingly ill-referenced so I'm not sre which map edition this is based on) and the sliding time-scale is neatly done, although of limited use after a few goes.


The map screen contains links to the "editions" that are being released every month - graphic novels that incorporate excerpts from Dickens's writing, primarily Sketches by Boz as well as some of the novels such as Bleak House in this first edition, illustrated and with an accompanying narration. There are also "hotspots" which offer more contextual information on some pages. The emphasis in the content, as I suspect will be the case in subsequent editions, is on excerpts detailing the streets of London, whilst accompanying images on each page attempt to "bring to life" the written descriptions:

"from the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined"


Except here the app not so much falls flat, as simply undoes itself; because Dickens's descriptions of the streets speak for themselves, or rather say more than any image, map, or accompanying historical fact can offer. It doesn't take anything else to breathe life into the written word, and placing the text in this context ultimately only serves to highlight that, really, the accompanying paraphenelia is redundant: ultimately, it's the written word that stands out most strongly here. Not only that, but this all detracts from the complexity and meaning that lies in Dickens's representations of the city, reducing the idea of "Dickens's London" to a single meaning and suggesting that these excerpts are little more than historical fact that we read for the truths they tell us about the Victorian streets.

As with the literary tour, this resides in a fundamental misreading of the relationship between real and literary spaces, but positions this within a wider framework of misreading the relationship between literature and history/ text and culture.

December 01, 2011

"Can you shew me the places?"; Dickens 2012 and literary tourism

As term draws to a close and 2012 gets nearer I've been catching up on the latest Dickens bicentenary news in order to plan a few trips to exhibitions over the vacation. It's particularly interesting noting some of the themes that emerge in coverage: the emphasis on film adaptations is hardly surprising, and neither is the biographical focus around Dickens's life and times. Another theme is that of literary tourism: the association of Dickens and London is central to the cultural idea of Dickens, and it's therefore no surprise that events reiterating the notion of "Dickens's London" feature in the 2012 celebrations. There are events like the Museum of London's "Dickens and London" exhibition which promises to "recreate the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projection" or a talk on "Oliver Twist's London". More interesting, for me, are the Dickens-themed walking tours such as the Guardian's audio walks, a podcast to listen to whilst walking a specific route; the latest walk traces the places associated both with the author's life and David Copperfield (Dickens's "most autobiographical" novel, as the website points out).

But what is the purpose of this kind of literary tourism? What does a novel gain from our walking the streets it depicts some 150 years later? A form of connection with author and characters? To reach a new understanding of the textual representation through seeing the "real" thing? Simply a more interesting way of experiencing history?

I'm immediately sceptical and resistant to the connections that this makes between place, text and author; aside from the problems of reading a text as strictly biographical, this understanding of literary place resides in a fundamental misjudgement about both the relationship between real and represented places/spaces. A tour of a text’s locations draws together text and "real" space as though literary place is a neutral reflection of a location, and space is presented as offering some kind of authentic connection to, or reflection of, the text. It also overlooks the slight problem of history: how do we read contemporary space as indicative of the past? What does it mean to search for a text's meaning in a place over 150 years later?

Nonetheless, there's such cultural importance around the notion of Dickens and place, and an attraction in "experiencing" that place in some way, that it's worth thinking more about why this is so resonant today.

I've been thinking about the urban tour recently in my work on mobility in Bleak House: one of the central moments of the novel sees Jo, the poor street boy, leading Lady Dedlock to view the places associated with her long lost, and now deceased, lover:

“Are you the boy I have read of in the papers?’ she asks behind her veil. […]

‘Listen and be silent. Don’t talk to me, and stand farther from me! Can you shew me all those places that were spoken of in the account I read? The place he wrote for, the place he died at, the place where you were taken to, and the place where he was buried?’” (p. 261)


In the passage that follows there are strong resonances with the urban tour and, more specifically, with the literary biographical tour: Jo takes the role of paid guide as he leads Lady Dedlock through the streets to view the places associated with another’s life. A strong connection is forged here between place and knowledge: this passage doesn’t offer any new information to either characters or reader, but the tour serves to affirm the connection between Lady Dedlock and the dead law-writer. For Lady Dedlock, the walk brings her back into a connection with the past and into understanding of a history she hasn't experienced. It is a locational, place-bound knowledge which has to be experienced and the act of walking the streets serves as a reiterative act that reawakens old thoughts.

Biographical literary tours perhaps offer a similar kind of knowledge and knowledge-gaining process: reaffirming an idea we already have (e.g. the notion of Dickens's London) which somehow seems more valuable in the physical act of experiencing that place. There is, perhaps, a (perceived) value in experiencing place, a sense that being in a place serves to reinforce abstract knowledge. In an insightful post about a recent Dickens discovery, Amber Regis reflects on the value of material objects in biographical readings: the objects offer, she writes, "an insight into the life narratives that emerge from, and are constructed by, material objects -- human interactions with objects, and the crafting and shaping of objects, become a form of storytelling". I think there's a similar process in literary tours of crafting and constructing a narrative through human interaction with place; the city is experienced like a material object, giving the idea of Dickens and London a physical manifestation in the city streets.

But Dickens's use of mobility in Bleak House also points us towards a possible wider cultural resonance inherent in these ideas: national identity. In Bleak House, acts of mobility serve to reinforce the idea of nationality, solidifying an abstract idea in a concrete experience of the physical space of the nation. Literary tours perhaps serve a similar purpose: after Shakespeare, Dickens is arguably the author we most strongly associate with English culture, and the urban literary tour serves to reiterate this connection in terms of national space, investing specific sites with national cultural meaning and thus giving the idea of Dickens as national symbol a physical manifestation in place. More than offering any illuminating ideas about the text or author, the literary tour ties both to the places of the nation as a way of locating and strengthening a cultural idea, and of investing the "space of the nation" with (national) cultural meaning.

March 04, 2011

Mapping the city?

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Just a quick post after this caught my eye in the Guardian last week - the "maps" of photographer Sohei Nishino, who collates thousands of photos of cities into a diorama. The effect is a fascinatingly detailed and intricate vision of the city, and I particularly love how the final image seems to play with its own un/reality; both suggesting "reality" in using close-up photographs that attempt to capture every miniature truth of the city, yet constantly revealing its own artifice in the patch-work effect that results from collaging each individual photo, creating a jarring from the joins between multiple fragments. The visual appeal, I think, is one of fascination from the continual visual readjustment that the image demands; from a distance, the strangely familiar yet oddly fragmented image draws one in for a closer look at the individual pieces, yet in looking closer I almost immediately want to move back out again, realising that the detail is made meaningful only in contemplation of the whole. And so on.

All this, however, is only from the computer screen - I'll hopefully visit the Museum of London's exhibition of London Street Photography to view this, and what sounds like a wonderful collection of other street photographs on display there.

(and as an afterthought, which was going to be my starting-point before I realised I didn't have a response, yet: how, and in what ways, is this a "map"?)

September 06, 2010

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propoganda, and Art

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BL mapsJust a quick entry on the exhibition currently on at the British Library, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art. This fascinating exhibition draws together a range of maps from c.1400s through to the present day; many of these were featured on the recent BBC series Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession which I noted back in April, so it was great to be able to see many of these maps up close.

The arrangement of the exhibition was such that the maps organised according to the contexts in which they were originally displayed: from palace galleries to the streets, schoolroom, bedchamber, reception hall, curiosity cabinet, merchant's house, and government office. In theory, I thought this was a good idea in opening up questions about how spatial context impacts upon interpretation, meaning and function of an object, and it was particularly appropriate for certain contexts: the street section, for example, grouped together maps used for propaganda purposes which gained from being placed next to other similar maps. Meanwhile, the gallery area displayed elaborate maps that leaned more on the side of art than of global knowledge, whilst the bedchamber opened up interesting questions about public/private spaces, the intimacy of the most private of spaces infiltrated with depictions of expansive other spaces.

Ultimately, though, I think the organisation of the maps in this way didn't add much to the display and, in some cases, detrated from it; whilst some of the maps were quite obviously suited to the room they were in, or the context might open up meaningful interpretations of certain maps, many of the types of maps displayed in each room were in fact quite similar. By going back to the "original context" you're dependent on what individuals decided looked best in their gallery vs. the entrance hall, the cabinet of curiosities vs the merchants house, and in many cases the maps displayed in differernt rooms didn't bear any special relationship to that room, only supported a general theme that maps work in different contexts to convey different degrees of power, wealth, and possession- which ultimately are often so entangled that it wouldn't have made much difference to swap many of the maps around. Whilst this wasn't a problem as such, it did mean the exhibits become a little repetetive between rooms and in some instances it would've worked much better to be able to see similar maps from different rooms placed next to one or near one another so that they could gain from comparative viewing, or that one could think about the similar themes or representational differences, and so on. In many instances I could also think of far more pertinent examples that related to the relevant room, such as the maps used in the school room, and a little more variety in the types of maps might have made for more interesting discussion (it was great to see Stephen Walter's The Islandbut some more contemporary examples would've been good); but I'm sure much of this was determined by what was in the collection and therefore perhaps an unreasonable complaint.

These are, however, small quibbles with what was nonetheless an enjoyable stroll around some fascinating exhibits, and some highlights included the fabulous Sheldon tapestry of the south east, the digitally enhanced version of the Hereford mappa mundi, wonderful globes, a tiny atlas made for Queen Mary's doll house, and many other beautiful maps. Well worth a look in if you're around that part of London or working in the British Library in the next couple of weeks (on until 19th September, and it's free).

April 19, 2010

Maps on BBC Four

BBC 4 seems to be having something of a map-week - last night, "Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession", the first of a 3-part series, focused on tracing the development of mapping techniques over the last 3000 years. Whilst the framing analysis tended towards the simplistic (although it's encouraging that the programme did at least raise questions and prompt thinking about representation and so on), I was interested to learn more about the more technical side of mapping and how the processes and techniques have evolved over the centuries. A variety of fascinating maps were on display from a range of historical periods and places, opening up fascinating insights into the ways in which different cultures understand and conceptualise space, location and movement. Throughout, I found myself coming back to the centrality of movement to mapping, and the role it plays in spatial experience, understanding, and representation- from the Roman map which privileged distance as the organising principle between places, to the Polynesian map drawn from the memory - the memory of travelling through and experiencing the spaces it portrayed. Movement is the precondition of mapping, one of the primary reasons for needing a map. And thinking about maps and movement draws out the underlying tension that all maps display: the attempt at (and pretence of) an accurate representation of space, and the unrepresentability of spaces which always resist containment in representable form. To travel through space which has been mapped is to experience the disjuncture between representation and reality- I'm reminded here of Hetty in Adam Bede, who sets out on her journey from the midlands to Windsor and finds that a distance that “that seems but a slight journey as you look at the map" is in fact "wearily long" to the traveller.


1675 map of a journey - from Mapping the Imagination exhibition

And yet despite their inherent problems and contradictions, maps have that continuing, irresistable appeal; as George Eliot notes later in Middlemarch, “a map was a fine thing to study when you were disposed to think of something else, being made up of names that would turn into a chime if you went back upon them”. The series starting tonight on BBC Four suggests the promise of the delights that maps hold, titled as it is The Beauty of Maps. The website contains some interesting info and links (Maptube looks intriguing), and there's also an exhibition at the British Library running until September, which I'll be sure to get along to.

July 13, 2009

"Between the Covers" @ The Women's Library

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"Between the Covers: Women's Magazines and their Readers" is the current exhibition at The Women's Library, which I finally got to visit this weekend. The exhibition brought together a fascinating collection of magazines, following their development from the late 17th century (the first magazine was dated back to the 1690s and the earliest exhibit on display was from the 1770s) up to the present day. The content of magazines had unsurprisingly remained somewhat consistent throughout the years, with an emphasis on beauty and fashion in particular, but shifts in how different themes were addressed reflected the changing conceptions of "femininity"; different readerships were also, of course, an issue with a split in the market occurring from the early 20th century. The relationship between magazines and the different waves of women's liberation movements was interesting, as magazines played an important role right from the earliest formations of feminism in the 19th century, and more recently in second-wave feminism. Supplementing the many visual resources were recordings of interviews with women that had been highly instrumental in the development of magazines in the latter part of the twentieth century, such as Sue O'Sullivan, editor of feminist magazine Spare Rib.

It was particularly interesting to visit this exhibition with my mother who could not only remember the magazines that had been influential for women of her era - from the first magazines aimed at teenage girls in the late '60s, through to those for career women of the '80s - but could also recall the magazines that my Grandma read in the 1950s: it was surprising just how dated and old-fashioned these now looked, with their knitting patterns and articles on the Royal Family as the "celebrity" culture of the day!

I'm not a reader of any women's magazines, far preferring the content of online feminist magazines/blogs like The F-Word, and it would've been interesting if the exhibition had considered how the internet has changed (if indeed it has) the demands on publication of women's magazines- there are a number of feminist publications in print such as Subtextbut these often struggle to maintain a wide readership (in stark contrast to the vast and ever-growing amount of cheap tat like Heat etc. that seem increasingly pervasive on the magazine racks) but the internet has enabled feminist content to reach a wider population than it's even been able to achieve through print distribution.

The exhibition continues to run until the end of August, and it's definitely worth a visit- I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for future events at The Women's Library as it seems they have a wonderful collection of resources to be discovered.

January 05, 2009

Past exhibition info

Follow-up to 'Mapping the Imagination' at the V&A from Charlotte's Research blog

I'm not sure how long this has been on the V&A website, but whilst preparing some material for my seminars tomorrow I came across thisarchived info about the exhibition "Mapping the Imagination" that I went to last year. The website is great as it has much better images of the maps than I managed to take, and it includes all of the exhibits, many of which I didn't photograph.

November 19, 2008

other things

Contrary to what my recent posts would suggest, I have been doing things other than the PG seminar series and conference organising! Although it mostly involves teaching-related activities - reading, prep, marking - and not a huge amount of research. Reading week turned out to be a godsend on the research front and I've constructed a reasonable plan of my next chapter, and have worked my way through a few more novels- Dombey and Son, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss, all of which will be useful for my research (and were really enjoyable!). Wilkie Collins is next on the list, I reckon. Reading has been fairly time-consuming as I note down every potentially useful quote, in full, and then type it all up into Word databases that catalogue everything thematically/ geographically. It goes without saying that I like things to be well organised, and it does draw out some interesting comparisons, not to mention saving time when writing (for those times when, say, you get to footnote 85 and need to recall exactly where all those references to sun-burned travellers occur in Dickens' novels). It's been tricky fitting in research around everything else this term, as I find it hard to settle down to work on days when I have only the odd hour or two spare, and I can only focus on writing when I know I have a few empty days ahead. So right now I'm counting down until the Christmas holidays, and planning to get the next chapter properly underway then.

Next year's Literary London conference looks interesting and I think I'll get a proposal in (the deadline isn't until March).

I'm also hoping to get to the current exhibition at the Women's Library, Between the Covers: Women's Magazines and their Readerswhich runs until April.

I missed the last Nineteenth Century Seminar at the IESbut I'll definitely be heading to the next, on Saturday week.

At some point I'm also going to get round to watching the BBC's Little Dorrit (I'm hoping it's still on the iplayer)- I watched the first episode and really wasn't that keen (ok, complained all the way through) so lost the will to keep watching (not helped by the annoying scheduling) but I am interested to see where they went with it and whether my initial complaints will be resolved in subsequent episodes.

September 04, 2008

'The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting" at Tate Britain

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Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior

It's taken me a while to blog about this so I'll just say a few words about what was a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition at the Tate gallery in London. The exhibition brought together paintings by British artists of the "Orient" - eastern Mediterranean countries under the control of the Ottoman Empire- from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, although most of the paintings were nineteenth century. A number of themes structured the exhibition: Orientalist portraits demonstrated the fashion for adopting the dress of foreign countries by travellers like T.E. Lawrence; 'genre and gender' explored the gendering of public and private spaces, although I felt this was more fully covered in the section on 'home and harem' which drew attention to female travellers who could, unlike their male counterparts, access exclusively female places like the harem. Throughout the exhibition, the informative displays and audio guides made much use of travel writing to supplement factual information- Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's writing featured particularly prominently. A section on 'mapping the orient' was useful in depicting the shifting boundaries of the Ottoman Empire throughout the period covered by the exhibition, and in detailing the changes in journeys undertaken as transport developments progressed to enable easier access to the region.

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