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A weekend of Objects: Tolson Museum in Huddersfield

2012 July 26
by lucinda matthews-jones

This weekend I went to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. Little did I know that my short visit would be filled by encounters with interesting objects! From the moment I stepped off the train I was greeted at the station by a dismantled parlour attached to the foyer wall. There is a lovely playfulness about this public art display. Objects were either photographs of an original (wall mounted candle holder, female bust) or the actual object (chair, table, grandfather clock, flowers). Each object had a tactility and a familiarity to the viewer. I liked that the objects were not ordered, but fractured and disjointed. The viewer is posed the task of recreating and reconstructing the room. What is fascinating about this display is that it is not only a piece of art but also an advert for ‘Time’, a gallery and coffee shop in Huddersfield (est. 2010). Some customers have apparently ‘likened it to Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop’ [1]

Image One: Time at Huddersfield Train Station

On Sunday we decided to visit the Tolson Memorial Museum dedicated to the memory of James M  Tolson and Robert H Tolson who died in the First World War. I have been visiting Huddersfield for 10 years and this was the first time that I had visited the Tolson Museum. This is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, it is within walking distance of my in-laws’ house. Secondly, James (my husband), has spoken about this museum with fondness, having spent his childhood visiting the exhibitions. I can see why he has some great memories of the place, especially the transport and taxidermy rooms. What I found particularly impressive was that the artefact is at the heart of this museum. Tolson has not undergone the radical transformations of others museums and art galleries of recent years. I’m probably going against the current trend in museum thinking here, but it was rather refreshing to visit somewhere that was not dominated by displays inviting the active participation of children through, for example, cartoon character guides. Rather, the Tolson Museum still seems to be structured and ordered by older museological principles.

Objects are grouped into rooms and then displayed in glass cabinets around a theme. In the ‘Victorian Rooms’ the cabinets are ‘Leisure’, ‘Work’, ‘Home’ and so on. In the second room, there is also a reconstructed schoolroom. In this post, however, I would like to focus on one cabinet in particular, entitled ‘Remembering Victoria’. I was drawn to this cabinet more than others because it showed the many ‘faces’ of Queen Victoria in material culture, but also, of course, because of its resonance with recent royal celebrations. The jubilee of Queen Elizabeth and the 2012 Olympics have highlighted to me the importance of material culture in national celebrations. While the cynical part of me thinks that many of these contemporary objects will end up in the bin, some I am sure will be found in future museum displays and become a way of remembering us, the people of 2012.

Image 2: ‘Remembering Victoria’ cabinet

The collection itself is made of plate, badges, medals and mugs relating to Queen Victoria’s coronation, jubilees and death. In his recent Journal of Victorian Culture article, Simon Morgan has noted that nineteenth-century material culture was a consumer commodity that sought to construct a ‘cult of personality’ and to develop specific social identities and messages.

By focusing on the cultural longue durée of Queen Victoria, this cabinet highlights the changing faces of this monarch from her youthful days on her coronation to the elderly Empress of India. Yet it also highlights the continuities and changes in the material culture of Victoria’s representation.

Images 3-5: Changing faces of Queen Victoria commemorating her coronation, jubilee and death

There are a variety of artefacts highlighting the many ways that people were able to engage with Victoria’s image. These included

1)      Plates

Images 6-7: Jubilee Plates

Unlike the ceramic dishes above, these plates are interesting not only for marking Queen Victoria’s jubilees but also for celebrating an event such as the roasting of an Ox at Batley Carr for the Silver jubilee or a Denby Dale Pie for the Diamond jubilee. As we have previously noted on JVC online, it is difficult to recreate the tastescape of the Victorians, but these objects at least highlight the importance of food in marking national events and how this localised these events for participants.

2)      Medallions and Badges

Image 8-9: Badges and Medallions

I really enjoyed the badges and medallions. I have a new appreciation of these objects since hearing Mark Nixon’s fascinating paper at the Transforming Objects conference on the material culture of reform politics in the 1880s. In this paper he argued that medallions were endeared[IS1] objects that could be worn beyond the original event. I was also struck by the badges. In contrast to the ceramic objects above, three of these badges used actual photographs of Victoria.

3)      Tassel from Coronation coach

Image 10: Tassel from Coronation coach

Of course, objects don’t always have to be carrying an obvious image to be imbued with a specific aura. Take for instance the tassel from Queen Victoria’s coronation couch. Somebody kept or collected this object because of its significance in national history, highlighting that objects not only have commemorative or decorative purposes, but also practical ones that can gain greater symbolic currency later.

Nevertheless, my favourite object was not in this cabinet, but in the next room along. In this room was a green transparent doorstop with a bust of Queen Victoria within it. According to the label, it was made to celebrate either her Silver or Diamond Jubilee.

Image 11: Doorstop with Victoria bust

Of course, with all these objects, we don’t know their individual biographies. What relationship did people have to them? How did people use them? How were they displayed? Did people make direct use of them or were they used for purely ornamental purposes? Scholars are much like the viewers of the ‘Time’ display in Huddersfield train station. We always have to recreate and reconstruct the material culture of the past. What was wonderful about the Tolson Museum was that it enabled me to do this. I was not distracted by ‘museum buff’ but mesmerised by the objects that were on display as was evidenced by the ‘wooos’ and ‘ahhs’ that could be heard (except in the taxidermy room, but that’s another story, probably best left for someone braver then me to tell)

[1] ‘Andrew Dunne: Business Profile’, Huddersfield Examiner 12th April 2012 http://www.examiner.co.uk/business/business-profiles/2011/04/12/business-profile-time-circa-2010-s-andrew-dunne-86081-28500932/


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