chapter  4
19 Pages

Museums and 'the People'

This development is, in its way, as significant as the legislative and administrative reforms which, in the nineteenth century, transformed museums from semi-private institutions restricted largely to the ruling and professional classes into major organs of the state dedicated to the instruction and edification of the general public.' As a consequence of these changes, museums were regarded by the end of the century as major vehicles for the fulfilment of the state.'s new educative and moral role in relation to the population as a whole. While late nineteenth-century museums were thus intended for the people, they were certainly not of the people in the sense of displaying any interest in the lives, habits, and customs of either the contemporary working classes or the labouring classes of pre-industrial societies. If museums were regarded as providing object lessons in things, their central message was to materialize the power of the ruling classes (through the collections of imperialist plunder which found their way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example) in the interest of promoting a general acceptance of ruling-class cultural authority.