Medieval Art on Display 1750-2010

  • Julia Snape

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis asks how the curatorial framing of medieval objects - the processes of selection, classification, display and interpretation - affect how medieval objects are made legible within the museum. It investigates how different collectors and curators have deployed medieval objects over a period of two hundred and fifty years of museological practice. Throughout this history, medieval objects have been appropriated within a range of museological narratives that have positioned them variously as objects of curiosity, utility, scientific analysis, nationalistic interest and as sites of scholarly and popular attention. My purpose is to inquire how the epistemological re-positioning of objects is articulated through their presentation within the framework of the collection, museum or temporary exhibition and to question how the mechanics of display facilitate particular readings of medieval objects. I then consider how certain curatorial approaches may produce unintended effects that render the medieval object illegible or problematic in unexpected ways. I also acknowledge that unforeseen exhibitionary outcomes may not be solely due to the effects of curatorial intervention but may be wrought by the agency of objects themselves. This thesis therefore examines medieval objects as active participants that play a crucial role in influencing the communication of curatorial objectives and in affecting how they may be apprehended through exhibitionary practice.The thesis examines sixteen chronologically presented case studies, beginning in the mid eighteenth century and concluding in the early twenty-first century, that represent important or influential episodes in the history of the display of medieval art. It traces a selective history of the various ways medieval objects have been culturally positioned at particular points in time to reveal how curatorial techniques have worked to reinforce or undermine the perception of medieval objects as carriers of specific meanings. Through the examination of historical approaches to the display of medieval objects I reveal how familiar tropes of display, such as the use of specific lighting techniques and stained glass have characterized the museological staging of medieval objects and how these have endured into the twenty-first century. Drawing on performance theory, material culture theory and sensory theory I identify how the biographical histories, material characteristics and sensory properties of medieval objects have been re-activated or suppressed by curators to encourage audiences to engage with them in specific ways. This theoretical approach reveals a previously unacknowledged sensory cultural history of engagement with the medieval object and highlights how historical approaches that have privileged embodied engagement with objects continue to inform contemporary museological practice. I also draw on Actor-Network theory to illuminate how medieval objects may be understood as active agents within the chain of correspondences that links people, objects and exhibitions at particular points throughout this history. In this way I delineate an exhibitionary landscape through which we can understand medieval objects as multi-authored and polysemic entities but principally as the products of exhibitionary practice.
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorHelen Rees Leahy (Supervisor) & Cordelia Warr (Supervisor)


  • medieval art,display, exhibition, museum, curators, interpretation, multi-sensory, objects, networks, opus anglicanum, translation, curiosity, reliquaries, stained glass, light, engagement, technology, ,

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