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“MUSEUMS,” VERNON LEE WRITES in her 1881 Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions, are “evil necessities where art is arranged and ticketed and made dingy and lifeless even as are plants in a botanic collection” (18). Lee's career as a writer and aesthetician coincided almost exactly with what Paul Greenhalgh has called the “golden age” of the exhibition – 1871 to 1914 (26) – and she devoted much of it to making sense of the strange interactions with art offered by museum-going. She was not alone in this effort; during the period I will examine, from the 1880s to 1914, countless stories and articles in the popular press depicted museum settings. These accounts, I will argue, were part of a larger cultural effort to make sense of museums in terms the middle classes could understand, and to clarify what there was about museum-displayed objects that made them worth looking at. Ultimately, I will suggest, these accounts charge museum-displayed objects with a specifically museal aura: a transcendent essence linked to their presentation as decommodified, decontextualized objects under the care of an expert and under the gaze of a properly detached and analytical museum-goer.
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