Sir John Soane’s Museum: The House Museum as Library

By | October 13, 2014
Sir John Soane’s Museum: The House Museum as Library

This past week, we were assigned an essay on the future of the Warburg Library, a public institution which started off as the personal collection of Aby Warburg. In her essay Reconceiving the Warburg Library as a Working Museum of the Mind, Barbara M. Stafford argues the importance of preserving not only the content of the Warburg Library, but also its origins as a personal collection.

Describing it through the “jevons effect”, Stafford says that to remove the content of the Library from its physical space and incorporate it into a larger university collection, demolishing the unique and personal classification system devised by Warburg, would actually diminish the consumption and availability of the materials, and lessen the efficacy, and even joy, of using these resources. Stafford proposes a reclassification of the Warburg Library as a house museum, calling attention to the importance of the experiential qualities of collections assembled by individuals. The importance of maintaing these collections in their original context is that doing so also preserves the ethos of the human who physically collated the objects, and provided the connections and classifications of the collections themselves. To remove the classification systems of the individual collector would be to loose part of what makes these collections valuable.

In her discussion of the Warburg Library, Stafford compares the Library to Sir John Soane’s Museum, a personal collection turned museum upon the death of its namesake and founder, Sir John Soane. Soane, who was a professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy and an avid collector of antiquities, sculpture, visual art and architectural ephemera, negotiated an act of parliament settling and preserving his house and personal collection as a museum upon his death for the “ benefit of ‘amateurs and students’ in architecture, painting and sculpture”. Since his death in 1837 the Soane museum has been maintained per Soane’s wishes, and persists to this day as both a museum and research library. Stafford uses the Soane museum as an example of a collection which is valuable not only for the individual items in the collection, but also for the sum and arrangements of its parts, including its physical location and the historical context of who Sir John Soane was and why he collected the items he did.

Stafford suggests the Soane museum as an example of how the Warburg Library should be treated, because of the similarities in how they were founded and classified by individuals:

Like the Warburg institute, this regency establishment posses a novel, multipurpose, academy like identity that allowed it, and continues to allow it, to function as much as a library as it does a museum. Books, casts, models, painting, watercolors, and drawings were evocatively set within intriguingly syncretic arrangements: a Basement Crypt, a convex-mirrored Domed Area, a Pompeian red Library Dining room, and the Shakespeare and Tivoli recesses, to name just a few themed rooms. Aby Warburg, like Sir John Soane, was a polymath. The stretch of their minds was great, although the tangible effects of their multidisciplinary research ended up housed within small domestic interiors…It is…unfeasible to imagine ambitious collections of this type-formed by inspired collectors whose unique mentality is a central component of what makes them significant-in any space or context but their own.

As Stafford points out here, it is the human element of these collections which is essential in understanding the real significance of these collections, because unlike more scientific classification systems, the unifying factor of bringing these items together is the collector themselves, rather than any obvious connection which may or may not exist between the objects. Though the objects maintained in these collections often have an implicit value, they are recontextualized and transformed through their placement within a collection, from the systems of classification which is placed upon them,  to how they are displayed and arranged in the physical space they occupy. That which Stafford ultimately poses, is that the human element of these personal collections is almost as important as the items themselves, and in order to value the collection and learn from it, it is important to understand the thought behind the collections.

The individuals who gathered these objects into libraries, or house museums, offer a meta data insight into the objects themselves, because it was the ideas and trains of thought of the individual collector that brought these objects together. In The Library as Mind, Alberto Manguel writes:

Every library is autobiographical…Our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been…By the books we call ours we will be judged. What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice. Our experience builds on experience, our memory on other memories. Our books build on other books that change or enrich them, that grant them a chronology apart from that of literary dictionaries.

This quote articulates precisely what is interesting and essential in maintaing the role of the initial collector in these collections. In the case of the Soane museum, to visit is to be physically immersed in the ideas and tastes of Sir John Soane, which you experience in the precise way Soane has devised for you to experience it. As with any library, the collection of texts and objects are transformed through their relationship to one another, however, in the personal collection library or house museum, the classification system is inextricably linked with the collector themselves and therefore should be maintained and valued in the same way the individual objects would be.

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