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Jewels of the Natural History Museum: Gendered aesthetics in South Kensington, c. 1850-1900

Syperek, PKC; (2015) Jewels of the Natural History Museum: Gendered aesthetics in South Kensington, c. 1850-1900. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Several collections of brilliant objects were put on display following the opening of the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1881. These objects resemble jewels both in their exquisite lustre and in their hybrid status between nature and culture, science and art. This thesis asks how these jewel-like hybrids – including shiny preserved beetles, iridescent taxidermised hummingbirds, translucent glass jellyfish as well as crystals and minerals themselves – functioned outside of normative gender expectations of Victorian museums and scientific culture. Such displays’ dazzling spectacles refract the linear expectations of earlier natural history taxonomies and confound the narrative of evolutionary habitat dioramas. As such, they challenge the hierarchies underlying both orders and their implications for gender, race and class. Objects on display are compared with relevant cultural phenomena including museum architecture, natural history illustration, literature, commercial display, decorative art and dress, and evaluated in light of issues such as transgressive animal sexualities, the performativity of objects, technologies of visualisation and contemporary aesthetic and evolutionary theory. Feminist theory in the history of science and new materialist philosophy by Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz, Karen Barad and Rosi Braidotti inform analysis into how objects on display complicate nature/culture binaries in the museum of natural history. The aim of this study is to go beyond dichotomised interpretations of the role of gender in science and museology in order to present a more nuanced and at times chaotic picture of sexual relations as reflected in late nineteenth-century scientific and material culture. By considering the spaces in between art and science, natural theology and evolution, taxonomy and naturalism, masculine and feminine, different, sometimes queer, configurations of gender emerge in the displays of the Natural History Museum.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Jewels of the Natural History Museum: Gendered aesthetics in South Kensington, c. 1850-1900
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of History of Art
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1471589
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