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Cultures of Exhibition
2005 MLA Meeting
Washington, DC
27-30 December


Meredith Martin
School of Arts History, Cinema, Classics and Archaeology
University of Melbourne

All Sorts and Conditions of Men :
The Palace of Delight and the Dialectic of Spectacle and Publicity


Do not cite without permission of the author.


East London has suffered from the want of a centre. The People's Palace will provide a place where people of all classes and conditions can congregate, and give them opportunities for associating together; and learning the hardly-remembered truth that they are members one of another! The chat with a stranger who belongs to another class, or who follows another trade, or who holds other opinions, may be far below the best intercourse possible to men, but it is through such chats that men realise the common humanity that lies underneath all differences…East London which has no common pursuit has been called the ‘joyless city'. The smallness of the houses prevents social gatherings; great distances prevent the enjoyment of pictures or of the treasures stored in galleries and museums and scanty means prevent visits to concerts, the country or the Continent…The People's Palace will create and scatter pleasure. In its Queen's Hall, in its Concert Rooms, in its Art Galleries , in its Winter Garden and its Play Rooms, the tastes of all comers will be fed with rational amusement.

- Handbook to The People's Palace for East London , 1887.



Introduction: The People's Palace: The Drawing Room of East London

The People's Palace, opened in the heart of London's East End in 1887, was an institution that was informed—as this description from its first Handbook amply demonstrates—by a faith in culture as an instrument of social cohesion and reconciliation. As the Dean of Westminster Abbey predicted in his Offertory to the Palace in February 1886: “such an institution would accustom people to act together harmoniously” and “introduce a spirit of regulated order and courtesy that affects all social relations”. The People's Palace “might become”, he concluded, “the drawing-room of East London” (Wilson 7) . Utopian, even naïve, in register, the Handbook's promise of joyful sociability is underwritten by an almost palpable anxiety concerning the kinds of association that might pertain to the “differences” that overlay and apparently elide this deeper “common humanity”. This anxiety is hardly surprising given that the People's Palace was founded precisely to address the profound social cleavages between East and West London . Indeed, in the same service, in an explicit reference to the “Bloody Monday” riots of the preceding week, the Chaplain to the Bishop of London reminded his congregation that: “The unlovely and ungracious ones of the earth, yes, these London mobs that imperil our very civilisation, are our brothers and sisters before God” (9) .1.


Like the South Kensington Museum , the People's Palace grew out of the Victorian discourse of “rational recreation”. However, in its particular negotiation of the dialectic of publicity and spectacle, it sat somewhere between the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations' two progeny—between the rationalism of South Kensington and the recreation of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Imagined by its middle class adherents as a cultural solution to the geo-political gulf between rich and poor London , the Palace promised a new approach to social dislocation, whereby the urban entertainments and the sociability of the fashionable West was to be imported into the “joyless city” in the East. As Lord Roseberry—a prominent contributor to the Trust that oversaw the Palace—noted, this “would do much, not merely to raise the population of the East-end of London, but also to prove the sympathy of the West-end” (qtd. in Weiner 200) .


To be sure—as Simon Joyce and Gareth Stedman Jones have reminded us—the culturalist aspirations upon which the People's Palace was founded, worked to promote a revised version of “working class culture which was no longer articulated within a traditional model of class conflict” (Joyce 514) . Indeed, in true Arnoldian fashion, the formative role of the aesthetic education provided by the People's Palace functioned as a hedge against the potential anarchy of rapidly escalating political agitation. However, the notion that a cultural bridge could be constructed via the importation of middle class entertainments, marked a significant shift in attitudes to working class leisure, and indeed, to the explicitly social claims made on the behalf of spaces of popular entertainment. For, as Simon During has noted, nineteenth-century middle class writing is most commonly haunted by profound anxieties that “key markers of distinction would be threatened if middle-class leisure styles and tastes were to be extended to lower-income groups” (139) . The discourse of rational recreation and what Barbara Maria Stafford has termed the “dilemma of display” reside precisely in this tension between spectacle and the reasoned apprehension of knowledge (and citizenly competencies)—between pleasure and education.


Essentially, the People's Palace was conceived as playing a far wider role for the benefit of the whole of its surrounding community, in contrast to, on the one hand, the dour Polytechnic model, and on the other, the more superficial pleasures of the Crystal Palace . As A. Shaw noted in 1890 in his comparative exposition of “London Polytechnics and People's Palaces”, there were “no popular concerts staged at the Polytechnic, no extravagant displays or exhibitions, no Winter Garden for the relaxation of the poor, no public library or reading-room”. And compellingly, in offering all these things, the People's Palace, he concluded, was offering, in effect, “social intercourse” (n.pag.) . So, whilst the operations of the People's Palace were marked by very conspicuous recreational activities, at the Polytechnic the sober educational efforts proceeded apace. Indeed, just as the optical techniques and entertainments made famous by West End sites such as the Polytechnic Institution earlier in the century were being imported to the East, many of these sites themselves were in the process of being absorbed into the Polytechnic movement. The Royal Polytechnic itself (as it was renamed in 1841) was purchased by Quintin Hogg in 1881 and re-opened in 1882 as a technical college—along precisely the lines of the model that the People's Palace sort to revise (Hogg 144) .


My interest in the People's Palace, then, lies in its particular negotiation of the dialectic of spectacle and publicity, or more precisely, in its apparent resolution of this dialectic—in the pursuit of publicity through spectacle. In this paper, I would like to explore how the People's Palace's particular economy of pleasure was informed and complicated by the politics of location. Here, I am concerned with the overwhelming recourse to imperial metaphors to describe metropolitan inequities in the language of late nineteenth-century cultural reform, and its elision of the economic imperatives that made such a nexus possible. In redressing what Gauri Viswanathan has described, in the context of British Cultural Studies, as “a reluctance to consider the economics of imperialism as having a final determining power over culture”, I hope to bring to contemporary debates concerning the social efficacy of museal spaces, a critical disposition toward the discursive coordinates and modalities of the museum as a formation that is central to the process by which social issues are reformulated as questions of cultural policy. For, as Viswanathan argues, “one of the unfortunate outcomes of approaching English culture as if it were self-generated is that cultural identity as a value takes precedence over the historical discontinuities and asymmetrical developments from which it emerged” (64) .


The economy of pleasure offered by the People's Palace—in its foundational years—harked back to earlier middle class negotiations of the relationship between amusement and instruction, where entertainment intersected more comfortably with scientific exhibition and pedagogy—with the emphasis firmly on entertainment. Indeed, playbills from its early years recall those of the Royal Polytechnic in its heyday. As advertised in the People's Palace Journal , on Boxing Day 1888, for example, the offerings included a “Selection of Clever and Sensational Experiments” by a Professor H. G. Clarence, “showing with what apparent ease he could deceive the eyes and puzzle the senses of all beholders”. In Part II of the Professor's act he introduced his “LIGHT ANTI-SPIRITUALISTIC SÉANCE, producing effects that are Interesting, Wonderful, and Exceedingly Enjoyable”. Also billed was Madame Clarence's Entertainment “The Doves at Home” introducing a “Flight of Performing Doves (Not Pigeons)” and Mr Mortimer Snow, “Retired Negro Comedian”. Earlier in December visitors could witness a lecture on the “Spanish Armada Illustrated with Dissolving Views by H. Cunynghame ESQ,” followed by a “Descriptive Exhibition of Edison's Latest Phonograph or Talking Machine”. In September of the same year was a programme of “Stirring Naval Yarns” given by Captain Charles Reade on “The Hero Nelson, Illustrated with Fifty Beautifully Coloured Limelight views. Also Maps, Plans, and Places visited, Panoramas and splendid Effects”. In August/September 1888 a six-week Autumn Fete was staged, which included side shows, magic lantern exhibitions, a loan-picture exhibition (with the largest collection of pictures ever gathered together in East London), military bands, evening concerts, promenades, entertainments in the illuminated gardens and a “great show of monkeys”. 2 In this six-week period alone the Palace attracted 310,207 visitors, and in its first year of operation, over 1.5 million (Currie 2) .


These optical and vaudeville displays, with their unashamed emphasis on entertainment, may have sat somewhat incongruously with the Palace's more “rational” arm, the provision of technical education classes, but not, it should be emphasized, with its aim to enable a kind of nascent “contact zone” between East and West London. Of course, the Palace's focus on spectacular entertainments certainly functioned according to Gareth Stedman Jones's model of the displacement of politics by leisure. However, this narrative of the rise of culture (and its eventual fall from pleasure back into techne ) is complicated both by an explicit emphasis on pleasure as an instrument of social cohesion and by a subplot of Empire and Nation.



Imperial Metaphors and Urban Sociology

“The Polynesian savage in his most primitive condition is not half so savage, so unclean, so irreclaimable as the tenant of a tenement in an East London slum”.

T H Huxley, 1865

In 1889 Charles Booth published—as the appendix to his Life and Labour of the People of London —what Franco Moretti has called the “great nineteenth-century map.” This vast map, “a block-by-block investigation of the economic texture of London ”, used colour coding to illuminate and spatialize the distribution of social class in London . Booth's taxonomy was divided into seven sub-sets ranging from “ Black : Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal”, “ Red : Middle class. Well-to-do” to Gold : Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy.” Moretti has described this code and its rehearsal of the coloured charts of the British Empire as “either quite naïve or very very ironic” (77) . I will argue that perhaps it was neither naïve or ironic, but rather the trace of what Patrick Brantlinger has termed a “transvaluation of values” in the dialectic of empire and home in late nineteenth-century Britain (173-97) .


For, a structural pre-condition of the shift in emphasis in the rhetoric of educational reform from technical training to rational recreation, was an increase in colonial investment and an accompanying “technological freeze”. Between 1880 and 1900 the British Empire expanded exponentially —in Africa alone control was secured of Rhodesia, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Nyasaland, the Sudan, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The deployment of the metaphor of the “Dark Continent” to highlight the disparity between the “two nations” of the rich metropolitan West and the abject poverty of East London, however, was not, of course formulated in terms of a critique of the jingoistic promotion of the British Empire at the expense of home development. The authors of the People's Palace were more fellow travellers than “Little Englanders”; the model for the acculturation of the East by the West, and the transvaluation of the political and the cultural, was the civilising mission of Empire.


Perhaps the most insistent and sustained deployment of the imperial analogy is to be found in William or “General” Booth's In Darkest England and the Way Out . Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was writing in the months following the sensational publication of Stanley 's account of his traversal of “Darkest Africa”. Chapter 1, “Why ‘Darkest England?'” opens with a series of annotated quotations from Stanley's descriptions of a sublimely interminable equatorial forest, which covered a region “four times as wide as Great Britain”, in which the spectacle of the African “savage” is reframed by way of analogy, to cast up the spectre of the hordes of urban poor: “how strange it is that so much interest should be excited by a narrative of human squalor and human heroism in a distant continent, while greater squalor and heroism not less magnificent may be observed at our very door” (12) . General Booth spectacularizes Charles Booth's statistics and maps (the “one book there is, and so far at present, only one, which even attempts to enumerate the destitute”) to conjure a sublime and frightening picture of the multitudes which populate “Darkest England”: the “Submerged Tenth” (21) .


Although Booth's plan for the “way out” did include recreational solutions (he proposed a timetable of trips to the sea, to be subsidised by the railway companies: “What Brighton is to the West End and middle classes, this place would be to the East End poor, nay, to the poor of the metropolis generally, a Whitechapel-by-the-Sea.”), his methods were largely pragmatic (340) . However, the circulation of such diatribes had a profound influence on the late nineteenth-century discourse of rational or cultural recreation and most certainly on the conception of the People's Palace as a bridge between East and West London . As Asa Briggs has noted, Booth's “contrast between ‘darkest Africa', which had just been penetrated by Stanley, and ‘darkest London' with its ‘submerged tenth'” was informed precisely by the sense that the “glitter of the West End in the 1880s and 1890s had sharpened the sense of contrast with the East” (315) .


It is salutary to compare this particular, and highly rhetorical, dialectic of empire and home with that of the Great Exhibition almost forty years earlier. In Tallis's History and Description of the Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of the World's Industry in 1851 , for example, the multitudes are rendered docile and quiescent by the grand spectacle of empire itself, of which the exhibition was a cabinet: “as if by magic influence of some fairy wand, the whole glorious spectacle has been presented to the wondering eyes of assembled multitudes in its crystal bounds; in the magic place that, indeed, rose like an exhalation before their chained sight” (115) .


Liberal Reform

The impact of Matthew Arnold's theories of culture and pedagogy on the liberal educational movement in the last half of the nineteenth century, and the enactment of the Education Act in 1870, was profound. 3 The extension of the cultural franchise, however, coincided with a growing alarm, particularly in the 1860s (when Arnold was commissioned to make his study of state education in France) that Britain was lagging behind the continent in the establishment of new industries utilizing the latest technologies and techniques, and crucially, in the development of parallel educational structures designed to produce a more effective and efficient labour force. The system of scientific and technological education evolving in Germany , epitomized in the establishment of the Technical High School , for example, informed the establishment of the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science in 1870. The growing perception that governmental intervention was required to ensure Britain 's continued industrial pre-eminence was gradually deflating that pervasive sense of superiority and self-satisfaction so evident in the era of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.


For if, as Anthony Burton argues, the origins of the South Kensington Museum—which, he reminds us, whilst the progeny of the Crystal Palace, began as a school—may be “convincingly located in the movements in support of the expansion of education”, this “pioneering attempt at vocational education” belongs to the period of relative prosperity following the First Reform Bill of 1832” (13) . To be sure, the Society for the Promotion of Art and Design and the Government School of Design, established in June 1837 at Somerset House, developed from concerns about national shortcomings in design “among our industrious population” and the “absence of public and freely open galleries containing approved specimens of art” (18) . Indeed, anxieties concerning the standard and performance of British exports of manufactured goods and the necessity for adult education in the decorative arts were dovetailed neatly by Radical Benthamites such as Thomas Paulett, with Rousseauian notions of universal education, and the perfectibility of man. 5


The material and political conditions of late nineteenth-century Britain, which produced cultural solutions such as the People's Palace, were somewhat different, and determined by an extension and complication of the dialectic of “country and city” to that of nation and empire. As Simon has observed, it was the perception that industries on the continent were benefiting materially from a higher standard of education—at the expense of British industry—that led many leading British industrialists to support the Education Act and ensure its success in both houses of parliament (165) .


The Great Depression of the 1870s–90s compounded these anxieties and had the effect of strengthening the determination of reformists such as Thomas Huxley, who agitated for the establishment in 1881 of the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction, which confirmed the deficiencies of the British educational system as compared to continental industry. 6 The inception of many of the universities of the great industrial cities can be traced to this period, as they developed from Colleges of Science (Leeds and Newcastle ) or from endowments by local industrialists ( Manchester and Birmingham ). As Simons has noted, the relation of these institutions to the industry of the local area—to local technological needs—was “sharply at variance with the prevailing classicism of the ancient universities and older public schools” (166) .


This relative focus on technical education in the heavily industrialised provincial centres, presents an interesting contrast to the logic of the Settlement Movement in London , whereby the Oxbridge elite attempted to import the consolations of a liberal education to the labouring poor of the East End. 7 As Deborah Weiner observes in Architecture and Social Reform , philanthropists increasingly “pointed to the cultural deprivation of the poorest districts as a source of serious division in the capital” and the solution was seen as necessarily coming from outside (158 emphasis added) . The Settlement Movement might be thought of as the apotheosis of disinterested Arnoldian altruism, whereby the bookish don—recast as the intellectual missionary—carries cultural improvement and its attendant sympathies and responsibilities to the masses in person. As The Cambridge House Magazine observed: “What is needed to-day” were “men of purpose who will become repairers of a breach and bridge-builders, messengers who will bring brightness into dark places and the gospel of the fullness of life and joy” (qtd. in Weiner 158) .


However, this tendency toward more abstract and generalized notions of culture in the urban centre, particularly in the 1880s, was not simply a matter of the internal, or national, logic of centre and periphery. For, if London was the counting house of the “civilized” world, the flow of capital during the Depression was most certainly directed outward, to its extremities. It is during this period that London fully develops as an international banking, insurance and commercial centre—the nineteenth-century global financial centre. So, whilst the general economic downturn posed a threat to the modernization of British industry, it simultaneously functioned to strengthen imperialist influence at unprecedented bi-partisan levels. Thanks to Imperial Britain's privileged trading position, colonial investment—particularly during a time of acute depression and technical stagnation—promised higher returns than investment in local industry. The opening of new “captive” markets meant that it was possible for established home industries to make profits, in spite of an increasingly obsolete technological base.


As Brian Simon argues, this freezing of technique had a “clear educational significance: an integrated system of science and technology no longer seemed so urgent” (167) . And hence, many of the industrialists and reformers who had earlier voiced demands for scientific and technical education and for educational advance more generally, “now tended to neglect this cause for imperial politics” (168) . So, imperialism had a dual effect on educational discourse in the 1880s and 90s: On the one hand, competition from other nations who were developing their industries at a later stage, threatened to outstrip older established British industry, stimulating demands for technological advance and scientific education. On the other, the expansion of captive markets supported older industries and commercial planes, and functioned to dampen interest in science and technology, dovetailing with the prevailing desire to curb rather than encourage the extension of educational facilities of the kind that had appealed to and were made use of by the working class earlier in the century. The extraordinary shifts in political alignment, which were occasioned by this intensification of the growth of imperialism, and the extremely complex set of socio-cultural relations produced by the attendant rise of the concept of a united nation are beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is important here to emphasise that the anxious, uneven (and as we shall see, temporary) diversion of reformist energy away from the more pragmatic (and “useful”) ends of technical education was productive of an extension of culture and cultural pedagogy to encompass the spheres of urban recreation and sociability. This cultural aporia enabled the fantasy of the “ Palace of Delight ” upon which the People's Palace was built, and via which both the pleasures and the redemptive values of English middle class culture were to be extended to the working classes, in the form of popular entertainment.


All Sorts and Conditions of Men

So what was the People's Palace? It was of uncertain typology: not a museum or a gallery, a polytechnic, a library, a club, a music hall, or a pleasure garden, it was comprised of elements of all these institutional and popular cultural formations. Hence, to date, it has been discussed as an anomalous footnote to the history of British educational reform, occasionally as an object of architectural historiography (most notably by Deborah Weiner in Architectures of Social Reform ), and more recently in literary historical accounts of the “condition of England ” novel. For the idea on which the People's Palace was based was proposed by the novelist, philanthropist and urban historian Sir Walter Besant in his novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men , first published in 1882 and subtitled, rather presciently it transpired, An Impossible Story . If for no other reason, All Sorts and Conditions of Men stands out from the flood of late nineteenth- century “condition of England ” novels in providing a literary blueprint for cultural intervention in the widening divide between East and West London . As the Pall Mall Gazette stated in 1887, “of all the novels with a purpose, ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men', has been the most immediately and the most strikingly successful. It was in the pages of that book that the People's Palace was built, and committees, subscribers, and architects have merely been translating it into a different material” (qtd. in Weiner 166) .


In an interesting re-gendering of the Settlement Movement plot, it recounts the adventures of the brewery heiress, and idealistic Cambridge graduate, Angela Messenger, who changes her name and takes lodgings in a Stepney boarding house, seeking to understand the East End and its people. Here she meets the aristocratic West End dandy Harry Le Breton, also incognito, who has recently discovered his true origins in the East, and is to gradually arrive at a new sense of humanity and kinship amongst the labourers at Messenger's brewery. 8


Angela (who, of course has the funds the make this dream a reality) resolves to erect a “magnificent place of entertainment” (177) in the “grim and sombre streets of Stepney Green”, an unimaginable “purgatory” to those “who have given themselves up too much to the enjoyment of roses and rapture while living in the West End” (175) . This cultural centre is variously described as a “Palace of Pleasure” (66) , a “Palace of Delight” (71) , a “Palace of Joy” (175) and although Besant remains vague about the actual design and constitution of Angela's Palace of Pleasure, she and Harry imagine it as “a kind of Crystal Palace…with modifications”, as a “superior aquarium, a glorified Crystal Palace” (423) , with libraries, reading rooms, clubs, schools, winter gardens, galleries, and a ballroom—a “space for every kind of recreation” to instil a “love of culture” (137) . For, as Angela muses:

There should be, for all who chose to accept it, a general and standing invitation to accept happiness and create new forms of delight. She would awaken in dull and lethargic brains a new sense, the sense of pleasure; she would give them a craving for things which as yet they knew nothing. She would place within their reach, at no cost whatever, absolutely free for all, the same enjoyments as are purchased by the rich. A beautiful dream. To cultivate the sense of pleasure is to civilise. With the majority of mankind the sense is underdeveloped, and is chiefly confined to eating and drinking. To teach the people how the capacity of delight may be widened, how it may be taught to throw out branches in all manner of unexpected directions, was Angela's ambition. A very beautiful dream (175-76) .

All Sorts and Conditions of Men was hugely successful, and according to a contemporary critic “probably [did] more than any other to familiarize the general public with the true character of that dark continent called the East End” (qtd. in Boege 70) . The publication of the novel coincided with the availability of funds from the Beaumont Trust, which had as its object the provision of “Intellectual Improvement and Rational Recreation and Amusement for the people living in the East End of London”. John Barber Beaumont, a Unitarian philanthropist, endowed the Beaumont Philosophical Institution in Beaumont Square , Mile End Road , Stepney with £300 a year and a trust of £13000, “for the mental and moral improvement of the said Square, and the surrounding neighbourhood” The Beaumont Institute closed in 1879, leaving substantial funds. 9 In 1882, in large part due to the influence of Besant's novel, the Charity Commissioners drew up a new scheme for the Beaumont Trust, and Sir Edmund Currie, (like Angela) the heir to a distillery fortune and an active figure in East End politics, was appointed chairman of the Beaumont Trustees (Weiner 42) .


The initial proposal was launched at a meeting at the Mansion House on 21 June 1882, chaired by the Lord Mayor, and with an address from the erstwhile supporter of technical education Thomas Huxley. In a new configuration of earlier discourses of competition, the Commissioners' “Preliminary Statement” declares that, “on the Continent, places of rational amusement and cheap instruction are common. The great Metropolis is apt to forget the dull lives of the toiling multitudes in its midst. It is proposed to erect a building for the instruction and recreation, the improvement and pleasure of the inhabitants of the East of London, to be called the People's Palace” ( Beaumont Trust , 3) .


Besant was active in getting his “vast club” under way, and remained committed to his vision up to and beyond its grand opening in 1887; attending meetings, writing letters to the press defending the terms of his original conception, and later editing (and penning most of the articles in) the People's Palace Journal . There was certainly no intention in Besant's original Palace of Delight to allow education to intrude on the idea of pleasure and amusement for the working classes. Indeed, in the early years of its operation, the Palace Journal positively glows with a faith in the power of its spectacular shows and events to initiate cross-cultural sociability. Moreover, the Palace was lauded in the press, on precisely these grounds— The Times of 25 December 1888, for example, described “The Great Christmas Fete” in which the entire exhibition hall was fitted up as an Arctic Village , complete with dioramas and magic lantern shows, as an instance of true “social intercourse”. Indeed, the Daily News expressed apprehensions that delight might gradually fall back into the background and “improvement take its place.” And in practice it was to be the warnings of the Daily News of the dangers of the People's Palace's educational branch dominating the whole institution, which were in the event to prove justified. For, just as this privileging of entertainment was informed by the economics of empire, it was economics that determined the failure of this extraordinary social experiment. The Annual Report of 1889 recorded a net deficit of £1,459 for the Christmas Exhibition extolled by The Times (Currie 2) . Accusations of extravagance abounded, accompanied by advice that exhibitions and displays, as the most persistent loss makers, be terminated forthwith. The financial crisis broke in June of 1890 with Currie's resignation, and the Draper's Company took de-facto control of the educational branch. A loan of £25,000 by the Draper's Company to alleviate the pressure only months later was the first step to their eventual control of the Palace and its transformation into a Polytechnic. So, by 1891, this truncated antecedent to the contact zone—a space of sociability enabling a different kind of cultural pedagogy—had failed before it had truly begun, and reverted to technical training. As the Pall Mall Gazette of 28 Feb 1891, remarked of the reformed Palace: “utility has taken the place of idealism”.



To posit the People's Palace within a museological framework is—at least implicitly—to interrogate the limits of the designation: Museum. Indeed, this is precisely the aim of the larger project from which this paper is derived. In conclusion then, I will gesture toward the ways in which the People's Palace might function within a genealogy of an alternative model, which I term the “museum-cum-cultural centre”, and indicate how it might contribute to an historicization of the re-emergence of culturalist theories of the social efficacy of museal spaces in a contemporary global field.


I would like to first turn to a recent essay by Eddie Berg, the founder of Liverpool's Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) and Director of the bfi Southbank in London , who is now responsible for the development of Britain 's new National Centre for the Moving Image. Under Berg's leadership, FACT was the lynchpin of Liverpool 's successful bid to become the European Union's “European Capital of Culture” for 2008. Founded in 1988, almost exactly one hundred years after the People's Palace, FACT's combination of cutting edge screen based technologies and emphasis on community participation, positioned it as the central protagonist in the narrative of Liverpool's rise from profound social and economic decline to urban renaissance as the ‘ Barcelona of the north”. What the East End was to London in the 1880s, Liverpool was to Britain in the 1980s. Indeed, in an extraordinary recapitulation of late nineteenth-century spectacularizations of urban poverty, in 1982 a journalist from the Daily Mirror suggested that: “They should build a fence around ( Liverpool ) and charge admission. For sadly, it has become a showcase of everything that has gone wrong in Britain's major cities” (qtd. in Jones 343) .

In “Venture Culturalism or Tales of Culture and Commerce in the City of Lost Empire ” Berg writes in support of cultural centres such as FACT that:

In 1869 the English poet, literary critic and social commentator Mathew Arnold published Culture and Anarchy , his book-length defence of the purpose of art. In it, Arnold defined art as ‘the criticism of life'. Empires may have come and gone, but 135 years later this assertion appears more important than ever. ‘The Criticism of Life' is surely both the burden and a central function of culture in the global city (239) .


That Berg, a sophisticated critic of the city's re-branding, would invoke Matthew Arnold in his exposition of the nexus of culture and commerce in a global field, is a salutary reminder of the continued relevance of nineteenth-century discourses of cultural reform to the contemporary cultural scene. That Culture and Anarchy should be deployed to recuperate the criticality of the cultural from this nexus is not, however, without irony. For, as I hope I have indicated, it is precisely these discourses—and their conflation of the political and the economic in the cultural—which continue to inform the neo-liberal imaginary of culture as a social emollient.

In 1997 the 89 th session of the Executive Council of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) voted to accept a number of proposals designed by the Working Group on Cross Cultural Issues (WGCCI) to facilitate the development of “inclusive museology”. A key item amongst these “strategic initiatives” was the suggestion that the Executive Council approve the extension of “the definition of a Museum in the ICOM Statutes so as to include Cultural Centres” (ICOM) . According to a recent paper by Amareswar Galla, the Chair of the WGCCI, this broadening of the museum designation was a further step in the ongoing clarification of the role of the museum as a social agent, initiated in 1972 by the ICOM Santiago de Chile declaration, in which the museum was formally redefined as an institution in the “service of society”. Galla argues that in order to “understand, accept and accommodate this service orientation” museum governance structures must “come to terms with their responsibility and relevance to linguistically and culturally diverse communities”. Hence, as the constitution of society becomes increasingly diverse and differentiated, so too must the museum rubric become more capacious and plural in order to serve and integrate its multiple constituencies.


As Tony Bennett has argued, the claims of multiple publics have informed “the debates that have been under way since the 1960s to adapt the museum to new purposes”. The inadequacies of the “frameworks of knowledge bequeathed by the nineteenth-century museum” are exposed when “viewed from the perspectives of the various constituencies that they have marginalized, excluded, or exoticised” (370) . This formal aggregation of the nomenclature “Cultural Centre” then, suggests both that the institutions so called might function according to a different epistemological logic to that bequeathed by the nineteenth-century museum and that this framework of knowledge may be more conducive to the development of the ideal of an “inclusive museology”. As a corollary, the cultural centre is privileged as an exemplar for the renovation of the museum, as an institution of civil society which “serves multiple stakeholders' interests” and is instrumental in the “building (of) liveable communities” (Galla) .


Indeed, this is precisely the etymological dialectic undertaken by James Clifford in his most recent work on Melanesian cultural heritage and new indigenous movements. In a recent paper, Clifford strategically bifurcated and conjoined the terms museum and cultural centre in order to “interrogate this word museum, its possible meanings and the ways it gets lost and found in translation as it disseminates locally, regionally, globally”. His own work on “indigenous museums/cultural centres” he argues, “is part of this interrogation of what might be too crudely termed the simultaneously governmental and open-ended work of museums and heritage” (Clifford) .


As the privileged term in this dialectic, the “open-ended” cultural centre updates—and would seem to more closely approximate—Clifford's now famous conception of museums as sites of cross-cultural exchange in “Museums as Contact Zones”, in which the museum emerges primarily as a scene of conversation rather than one of exhibition. Tony Bennett has conceptualised the historical movement of museums from exhibition to cross-cultural “communication” as a “shift in the ratio of the senses”, as a “change in the sensory regime of the museum”. He traces this epochal trajectory from the “conversable space” of the Renaissance studio, through the nineteenth-century “centring of the eye” and “dominance of the visual”, back to the future of the contemporary museum as contact zone; a “renovation of the museum's earlier conception as a conversable civic space”, in which “relations of discursive reciprocity and equality” are enabled and fostered (Bennett 347-8) .


But, as we have seen with the People's Palace, and continue to see in cultural centres like FACT, the dominance of the visual and the pursuit of social intercourse are not so easily separable. What is lost in Bennett's leap from the Renaissance to the postmodern is, of course, the nineteenth century, and along with it the geo-political economy of this transhistorical space of conversation. And, as George Yudice's formulation of culture-as-resource reminds us, this is a significant absence. In the opening pages of The Expediency of Culture. Uses of Culture in a Global Era , Yudice recounts the lament of a UNESCO official that “culture is invoked to solve problems that previously were the province of economics and politics. Yet, she continued, the only way to convince government and business leaders that it is worth supporting cultural activity is to argue that it will reduce social conflicts and lead to economic development” (2) .


As I have suggested, this aporia is further complicated by the emergence in contemporary museum practice and criticism of a renewed and somewhat more optimistic emphasis on the efficacy of museal spaces as agents of social reform. In fact this is the defining characteristic of the “reformed” museum. Whilst it is now a critical commonplace that the logic of the nineteenth-century museum is understood as constitutively exclusionary and its political rationality as contradictory, the reformist logic of the postmodern museum is typically framed in terms of its instrumentality as a corrective to the universalising practices of this monolithic “Museum”.


This problematic is posed with some force in Ben Dibley's recent essay, “The Museum's Redemption. Contact Zones, Government and the Limits of Reform”, in which he takes on both Tony Bennett and James Clifford, in order to expose the inherently contradictory rationality not just of the museum, but also of the discipline of museum studies. Dibley contends that, “seduced by the institution's rhetoric”, “almost all” museum analysts “produce redemptive narratives that mimic the reformist logic of the museum's own political rationality” (6) . Whilst Dibley's exposé of the utopian register of museological discourse is exemplary in its deconstructive rigour, his own investment in and anticipation of an ideal museology, which might transcend this logic of redemption is never far from the surface. This romantic negativity works to reduce both the complexity of the historical and its continuance in the contemporary sphere. In locating—in the very socio-political ground that gave birth to Bennett's public museum—an historical precedent for the contemporary cultural centre, I am not concerned so much with how the work of cultural institutions might escape the horizon of the political rationality of the “Museum”, but rather with specific negotiations of this model itself. In the absence of critical attention to historical precedents to the broadening of the museum designation, I am concerned with offering an alternative but intersecting genealogy, which is attuned to the discursive coordinates of new modalities of the museal/cultural formation that place it, once again, at the centre of debates concerning the relationship between culture and politics, and the possibility of cultural praxis.


As Stephen Greenblatt has argued, the process of drawing connections between a particular set of historical circumstances and contemporary discourses, offers the potential for a sense of productive “estrangement”, enabling a more critical disposition both to the past and the present. This historicist “mode of relation” unsettles the discursive discreteness of the now and the new; most emphatically when homologies are drawn at the level of analogy and causality—as a means to trace through these correspondences the “generative forces” that might have led to a contemporary horizon of thought. The tendency to locate the museum's political rationality as historical —in the wake of its metamorphosis and the extension and supplementation of its representational adequacy—is structured by a series of memory lapses, of which this kind of critical “estrangement” is a salutary reminder. For the new liberalism of the contemporary museum scene, with its double emphasis on the museum as an object and agent of cultural reform, involves a disavowal of the old liberalism, by which it is informed. In order to eschew “an aestheticized and idealized politics of the liberal imagination”, it is necessary that this alternative model of the museum-cum-cultural centre be remembered otherwise (Greenblatt 543-4) .


Works Cited

Beaumont Trust . Beaumont Trust, London Metropolitan Record Office, 1882.

Bennett, Tony. "Pedagogic Objects, Clean Eyes, and Popular Instruction: On Sensory Regimes and Museum Didactics." Configurations 6.3 (1998): 345-71.

Berg, Eddie. "Venture Culturalism or Tales of Culture and Commerce in the City of Lost Empire." Empires, Ruins and Networks: The Transcultural Agenda . Eds. Scott Mcquire and Nikos Papastergiadis. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005. 226-39.

Besant, Walter. All Sorts and Conditions of Men: An Impossible Story . London: Chatto & Windus, 1903.

Boege, F W. Saturday Review 27 November 1886.

Booth, General. In Darkest England and the Way Out . London: International Headquarters of the Salvation Army, 1890.

Brantlinger, P. Rule of Darkness. British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 . Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Cities . Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

Burton, Anthony, and Victoria and Albert Museum. Vision & Accident : The Story of the Victoria and Albert Museum . London: V&A Publications, 1999.

Clifford, James. "Translating Museums, Articulating Heritage: Some Pacific Performances." The Rebirth of the Museum Conference . University of Melbourne, July 9, 2004.

Currie, E H. Beaumont Trust Annual Report , 1888.

Dibley, Ben. "The Museum's Redemption: Contact Zones, Government and the Limits of Reform." International Journal of Cultural Studies 8.1 (2005): 5-27.

During, Simon. Modern Enchantments : The Cultural Power of Secular Magic . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Galla, Amareswar. "Is the Museum Public a Mosaic or a Fabric?" The Museum and the Public Sphere Conference . Humanities Research Centre, Canberra, 2004.

Greenblatt, Stephen. "Resonance and Wonder." Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts . Ed. Bettina Messias Carbonnell. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 541-55.

Hogg, Ethel. Quintin Hogg. A Biography . London: Archibald Constable, 1904.

ICOM. Museums and Cultural Diversity Policy Statement : ICOM, 1997.

Jones, Paul. "Capitalising Culture: Liverpool 2008." Local Economy 19.4 (2004): 341-60.

Joyce, Simon. "Castles in the Air: The People's Palace, Cultural Reformism, and the East End Working Class." Victorian Studies 39.4 (1996): 513-38.

Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel . London and New York: Verso, 1998.

Shaw, A. "London Polytechnics and People's Palaces." Century Magazine XL.June (1890).

Simon, Brian. Education and the Labour Movement 1870-1920 . London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965.

Tallis, John. Tallis's History and Description of the Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of the World's Industry in 1851 . London; New York: J Tallis and Co., 1852.

Viswanathan, Gauri. "Raymond Williams and British Colonialism." Yale Journal of Criticism 4.2 (1991): 47-66.

Weiner, Deborah E. B. Architecture and Social Reform in Late-Victorian London . Manchester ; New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Wilson, Rev, J M. "The Church and the Labouring Classes with Special Reference to the Beaumont Trust Scheme for the People's Palace in East London." A Sermon Preached at Westminster Abbey . London: Maclure and Macdonald, 1886.

Yudice, George. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era . Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.


1. As Asa Briggs has noted, the general hysteria provoked by the rioting in the West End produced a “jump in the Lord Mayor's Relief Fund from £3000 to £80000 in 48 hours” (329). The Times reported on 10 February 1886: “The West-end was visited yesterday by large crowds of people, and the damage done to property on the route taken by the mob…presented an appearance hitherto unknown to London in modern times. The Chartist demonstration of 1848 was sufficiently alarming, but there was no preaching of the gospel of revolution even then, and there was certainly no such application of its principle as was witnessed on Monday” (5).


2. Extant copies of the People's Palace Journal are archived in the library of the Queen Mary College , University of London , which now occupies the site of the Palace. My thanks are due to Anslem Nye for his assistance in accessing this material.


3. Arnold was an active and passionate advocate and participant in the emergent bureaucracy of popular education. Prior to the publication of Culture and Anarchy , he was the author of Schools and Universities on the Continent (1866) and The Popular Education of France (1861), the latter a report for the Royal Commission on Education, published as a separate essay entitled ‘Democracy' in 1879. Culture and Anarchy was written from recognition of the phenomenon of the class struggle around the extension of the franchise, which was enacted in the Second Reform Act (1867). As David Lloyd and Paul Thomas argue in Culture and the State , the theoretical convergence of state and culture, which takes place across the nineteenth century, effected a discursive confluence by which both terms come to be “given the role of furnishing sites of reconciliation for a civil and political society that is seen as riven by conflict and contradiction” (1). Arnold was deeply antagonistic to the political cultures of radical social movements, precisely on the basis of their fully invested, localised and particularised nature. Culture, for Arnold and other great Victorian thinkers such as Mill, is primarily a question of the harmonious development of the faculties and of ethical judgement, and hence, politics—in the transformative sense of mobilised class-consciousness—was culture's opposite, always threatening to splinter the whole and plunge it into anarchy, commonly figured as that great liberal bogey, the mob. Arnold famously described the Hyde Park rioters response to the Government's refusal to permit a demonstration in favour of the extension of the franchise, as a “mob marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes”. For Arnold the potential for anarchy lies in the tendencies of the (politicised) “ordinary self” that does “what it likes” (and marches to its own tune) and that the conciliatory role of culture is to ameliorate, discipline and educate this sectarian self, educing and shaping the “best self”—the citizen.


5. As Burton notes, Henry Cole, the ‘father' of the V & A, who was put in charge of the School of Design in 1852 after its move to Marlborough House, and later oversaw its transformation as the South Kensington Museum , was also a recipient of Benthamite radicalism. Through his friendship with Thomas Love Peacock, Cole was introduced into the Radical set of J S Mill, and shared their belief in universal suffrage and the education of the “whole people.” Cole's Utilitarian approach to taste—that it should be “settled by common consent by the majority vote, but that the vote would be given only to those competent to make judgements” (29)—is a forerunner of the circular logic of Arnoldian conceptions of the cultural franchise.


6. The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction was chaired by Bernhard Samuelson, whose career and subsequent rise through the ranks of industry, politics and finally the lower echelons of the aristocracy, epitomised the benefits of a technical education. Apprenticed as a merchant, he later turned his attention to production, training as an engineer and iron-master, in order to further his interests in the exportation of machinery to Europe . He sat as MP for Banbury and was a supporter of Gladstone . He made his own comparative study of European technical education in 1867 and was made a baronet in 1884. Published as The Samuelson Report (1882), the Royal Commission's findings recommended the endowment of schools with ‘modern' curricula. However, whilst the Report certainly evinced an anxiety regarding the “progress of foreign countries” and the keenness of “their rivalry with us in many important branches”, there is a marked resurgence of national confidence in the Second Report of 1884, no doubt underwritten by the expansion of imperial markets: “our people still maintain their position at the head of the industrial world” (1884, Part IV, pp. 506-11).


7. The Settlement Movement was first proposed by Canon Samuel Barnett in a lecture at St John's College , Oxford in 1883. As Weiner notes, Barnett envisioned an institution that would “provide a place for daily intercourse between classes, a means of mitigating class suspicion through first hand knowledge of each other” (160). Barnett and his wife Henrietta opened the first Settlement House, Toynbee Hall, in Whitechapel in 1884. The activities at the Settlement Houses emphasized cultural and intellectual pursuits, and included evening courses, lectures, picture exhibitions, theatre clubs, and the use of libraries.

8. The play on the names of the central characters, is telling. Whilst the connotations of Angela Messenger are fairly obvious given her desire to act as an angel of mercy, like her Oxbridge precursors, “a messenger who will bring brightness into dark places and the gospel of the fullness of life and joy”; Henry's surname is rather more suggestive. Le Breton—or the Breton—might connote Harry's Francophile decadence in his unreformed aristocratic state. And also, given the context of imperial competition, the nationalistic connotations of his transformation (via his sentimental education in the East) into the philanthropic and utterly English, Harry Cobbitt.


9. The records relating to the Beaumont Trust are located at the London Metropolitan Record Office.





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