Domestic Magic in the Museum of London

The Museum of London has quite a wide selection of apotropaic objects in their collection, and last week I went for a visit. However, I didn’t go just to look at and photograph them, but to think about where they’ve ended up post-discovery; to consider how their biographies have continued now that they’ve been removed from their places of concealment. No longer apotropaic devices, they’ve been accessioned, labelled, and have subsequently transitioned into a new role: that of the museum artefact.

Amongst their collection is a mummified cat, which I’ll consider in a later post. For now I want to focus on the concealed shoes.

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The shoes, which were dug out of storage for me, were a pair of man’s hobnailed boots with elastic sides, highly worn and damaged, with gaping holes in the uppers. These had been found in the roof of the vestry of the Savoy Chapel in London, originally with a sooty scrap of wallpaper tucked inside bearing a pencil inscription. Sadly the wallpaper scrap, which carried a registered design stamp dating it to 1868-1883, no longer survives. Why and how it was disposed of is unknown, but fortunately a record was made of it, and we know that the inscription read: ‘William Chapman/ B 3d July 1828/ this was don in 1876’. This is very useful for our dating of the act of concealment (presumably 1876) but is also very interesting for what it suggests about motivation. The act of inscribing your name along with what we assume to be a date of birth suggests a desire to make a personal claim on the deposit. Perhaps William Chapman was more concerned with ‘leaving his mark’ than warding off malevolent supernatural forces – or perhaps it was a mixture of both. Would the efficacy of the shoe be more potent with an explicit personal connection?

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The shoes, stuffed with balled-up pads of tissue paper to help retain shape, were set out for me on a white tissue table-cloth. A white luggage tag bearing their catalogue number (58.13ab) along with ‘boots, 1860-70’, was attached to one boot via a loose cotton cord. I was given a pair of latex gloves, warned by the curator that the boots were extremely fragile, and asked to handle them as little as possible. I was hesitant to touch them at all, lest the boots fall apart in my hands, and when I did move them, it was gingerly, with a great deal of reluctance and breath-holding. With hindsight, I wonder if my trepidation had less to do with the state of the boots and more to do with their environment.

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The accessioning of an object into a museum collection invariably results in what Lowanthal bemoans ‘the loss of environmental context’ (1985: 286). If a concealed shoe is removed from its place of concealment, is it still a concealed shoe? If not, then what is it?

A museum environment, according to Macdonald, almost sanctifies an object: ‘Once they are in museums – such is the magic-conferring power of these institutions – objects are special’ (2002: 92). This opinion is shared by Paine, who notes a striking parallel between ‘museumification’ and ‘sacralization’ (2013: 2), asserting that when an object becomes a ‘museum object’ it ‘acquires a new meaning, a new value, a new personality’ (2013: 2). This process is what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett terms the ‘museum effect’ (1991: 410), whereby objects become ‘enshrined’ by their museum environments (1991: 386) – and I would argue that these boots have been subject to the same process. They’re handled carefully, almost reverently – so differently to how I imagine they were treated by past owners. Did William Chapman wear a pair of latex gloves when he placed them in the roof of the vestry? I think not. And judging by the state of the boots, I doubt they’d been treated with much reverence before entering a museum environment.

However, ‘museumizing’ objects does more than ‘sanctify’ them; it also anchors and ossifies them in a process of ‘museumification’. It occurred to me that the location of the Savoy Chapel boots – in storage – prevents them from being seen by members of the public. Only my academic credentials privileged me this engagement with them; as Gathercole observes, some objects ‘are at the core of museum scholarship, locked away in store-rooms, revealing their secrets only to the initiated’ (1989: 76).

Locked away, revealing their secrets only to a select few… This sounds familiar. Wasn’t this the status of these boots before they were accessioned; before they were discovered in their hiding place in the Savoy Chapel vestry? Has a museum environment resulted in a reversal of the usual process: the concealed revealed has become re-concealed?

It seems as if environmental context has not been entirely lost after all.

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One thought on “Domestic Magic in the Museum of London

  1. Pingback: Time-Travelling Devices: Concealments as time capsules – The Concealed Revealed

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