Go back to article: The Panstereomachia, Madame Tussaud’s and the Heraldic Exhibition: the art and science of displaying the medieval past in nineteenth-century London
Taken together, the Panstereomachia, Madame Tussaud’s and the Heraldic Exhibition offer a fresh perspective on how technology impacted public encounters with the medieval past in the nineteenth century, illuminating the intersections between visual and textual worlds and scholarly and popular perceptions. All three exhibitions offer valuable insight into the role of technology in shaping visitor experiences of the medieval past. The Panstereomachia and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum illustrate how, in the rich market for history, exhibitors relied on technology to entice and engage visitors. Newspapers and advertisements highlighted the Panstereomachia’s ‘scientific’ name and ‘plastic marble’ figures to claim novelty, and promoted Tussaud’s use of wax models to bring historical figures to life. Technology also proved critical as a means for exhibitors to create new experiences and ways to access the past. The proprietor of the Panstereomachia used technology to enable visitors to become closer to a lost past by creating a birds-eye view of the battle of Poitiers, while Tussaud’s used technology to revive the past through their character models, and later through tableaux that enabled visitors to meet historical figures or witness ‘significant’ events. The introduction of gas (and later electric) lighting was critical in shaping narratives and experiences of Harold’s demise, Alfred’s cakes, and the Magna Carta. Finally, the conservation of the Black Prince’s relics for the Heraldic Exhibition shows how technology can also be used to preserve the past, highlighting the role of the historical object itself as central to exhibits. The Black Prince’s relics became stand-ins for his battles and a place to ruminate about his reputation as a heroic individual. The exhibition links restored artefacts with the uses of the past, highlighting the centrality of the ‘authentic’ object in shaping visitor experiences.
At the same time, the attractions expose how exhibitors played with history and historical narratives about the Anglo-Saxon and late medieval pasts, complementing as well as contesting versions found in history books. This essay’s focus on the characters and exploits of the Anglo-Saxon and late medieval royals sheds light on the reputations of Harold, Alfred, Richard I, John, and Edward the Black Prince. While the Panstereomachia echoed early nineteenth century texts in its celebratory version of the English triumph over the French, its depiction of the hero of Poitiers (the Black Prince) subverted expectations. Tussaud’s, one of the most popular visitor attractions in London, helped shape visions of medieval royals; their positive versions of royal characters such as Richard I can be contrasted with other more negative images of the king that circulated in nineteenth-century histories, literature and plays. Thus, in addition to illuminating the vital role technology played in shaping visitor experiences of the medieval, these three exhibits offer insight into the place of the medieval past in British lives and culture through their promotion of medieval characters and ‘significant’ events.
An analysis of the exhibits exposes their value in assessing the cultural work of the medieval past through comparisons with other pasts. Tussaud’s, which offered a wide range of historical and contemporary figures, illustrates shifting views of historical characters and periods through an analysis of figure placements, dressing and expression, guidebook descriptions and reviews. The Heraldic Exhibition showcases how emerging ideas about heritage and preservation influenced visions of the medieval past and approaches to medieval artefacts as something that needed to be preserved and conserved for future generations rather than revived (Gribling, 2017). For historians of nineteenth-century culture, this essay illustrates how exhibitions offer a valuable window into diverse and shifting attitudes towards the Anglo-Saxon and late medieval pasts, and the vital role of technology in shaping experiences of history. For museologists, it demonstrates how such exhibitions played with popular and scholarly narratives of the past, drawing on and reforming narratives found in art, literature and histories.
I would like to give special thanks to Louise Baker, archivist at Madame Tussaud’s, for access to the rich materials held in the archive. I would also like to thank Dr David Green, Dr Jennifer Tucker and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on this paper.
Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181011/005