Monday, 27 August 2012

Blogging from the Jerwood Centre: 'the thing-ness of things'

At the local history group meeting I attended on my first morning at the Jerwood Centre, a debate broke out over the proposed use of the word 'things' in the title. Curator Jeff Cowton defended the term against those who felt it was too vague and sloppy, saying that he was a great believer in 'the thing-ness of things'. A 'thing' can be, well, anything, but I think Jeff was thinking of things that have a material presence: 'thing-ness' can be understood as an object's presence in the world, its capacity to be apprehended by the senses.

Working at the Jerwood Centre is to be surrounded by things with physical presence, most obviously the manuscripts themselves, as I've already discussed. But of course there are other kinds of objects here too, in Dove Cottage (above) and the museum just down the lane, that can be 'read' just as the manuscripts can. Dove Cottage is itself such an object.

To the left above is Dorothy's room. It's on the ground floor and, because the cottage is built into the hillside, partly underground. It's low-ceilinged and very, very dark, even in the middle of the day. The room, and its position in the house, sheds light (or rather, doesn't shed light) on all those hundreds and hundreds of pages of Dorothy wrote out for William. Dorothy's labour is all the more difficult to comprehend in this gloomy space. The room next door, where she carried out household duties with Mary and Sara Hutchison, has the same dark walls and low light. The rooms upstairs, including William's sitting room (on the right) and the master bedroom, are much brighter, with light-coloured walls, and this, too, might tell us something.

The past ten days at the Jerwood Centre, which has included much time wandering around Dove Cottage and the museum, has made me think (somewhat inconclusively) about what the value of the object is to academics. Does looking at Wordsworth's shaving kit aid or occlude understanding of his texts - or is it beside the point, a completely separate kind of experience? Is it possible to visit places like Dove Cottage, or Nether Stowey, or Haworth as academics, or should we approach them as enthusiasts?

Dove Cottage is, like many restored 'former residences of', a hybrid space, part time capsule, part museum cabinet. Enormous care has gone into ensuring furniture, fittings and light levels are all as they would have been when the Wordsworths lived there. Some of the furnishings are those that belonged to the family. There's almost no signage because visitors are expected to take a guided tour, which means that the cottage is without any intrusive twenty-first century interventions. Compared to, for example, Coleridge's recently restored and re-opened cottage at Nether Stowey, Dove Cottage feels, to use a problematic term, 'authentic'. It is, almost, frozen in at the turn of the nineteenth century. But not quite: because it's decorated and furnished with personal items, memorabilia and portraits of its famous inhabitants and their friends. Cabinets in two rooms display objects owned by the family, with handwritten notes establishing provenance. It's as much a record of nineteenth and twentieth-century collecting practices as a period restoration. This creates a disjunct: the cottage certainly looks and feels the part, but it's filled with things that, relating directly to the inhabitants, paradoxically confirm that we are looking at an artificial construction of the past: a painting of Coleridge done in London years after the Dove Cottage period, William's framed passport, a chair with 'Wordsworth's Chair' carved into the back by some Victorian trophy-hunter.

Furthermore, heritage sites are completely inauthentic because the intervening years have been removed, and this is the challenge and the strange duality of all period artefacts. In fact, the more successful these spaces are as time capsules, the more we think, stepping in, that they are 'as they were', the more obscured time and history are. There's something slightly untruthful, I think, about the feeling of direct access to a very specific point in the past that an object gives us. Here, for example, are Wordsworth's socks and his tinted glasses:

These are personal items that bridge the gap between Wordsworth the wearer and us the viewers in an almost tangible way. Wordsworth wore those socks, and then two hundred years passed, and here they are now, in the Wordsworth Trust Museum, as if that time had never passed. Because Wordsworth's trouble with his eyes towards the end of his life is well-known, the glasses are even more an object unique to him, an object that graphically illustrates a biographical detail. They are Wordsworth's glasses, and if someone now were allowed to handle them, they could put them on and they would be sharing something of Wordsworth's visual experience, imaginatively erasing time.

These everyday items have a meaning conferred on them far in excess of their practical value, because they have been touched by a famous poet. In all these cases, and in Dove Cottage itself, and in the status we afford manuscripts, what is being valued is an imagined connection with the authors' bodies, a way to reach across the centuries physically and make contact. The covert presumption is that we want to get as close as we can to them, to touch them, to dig them up.

None of this is to say that properties like Dove Cottage aren't meaningful to academics. They are places where the 'thingness of the thing' is celebrated, which in itself can afford unique research opportunities. As Dorothy's room illustrates, artefacts can allow for new perspectives on how texts are affected by the material circumstances of production. More broadly, however, I think heritage sites and collections of this nature, because of the very issues they present, throw into relief some of the tensions between text, author and biography that might otherwise be avoided. They force us to think about what material history means, and what we think objects are standing in for when they are selected to become part of history.


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