Downton Abbey and the Perils of Preservation

The shooting location for Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle (Photo by Richard Munckton)
The shooting location for Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle (Photo by Richard Munckton)

Downton Abbey is downsizing — or at least it was, for a hot second. If you’ve been following the post-Edwardian miniseries, you’ll know that the Crawley family, who lives in the show’s eponymous grand estate house, was in danger of losing their lavish lifestyle. The show’s patriarch Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, had made a bad investment in Canadian railway, and now, at the dawn of the 1920s, the family would have to sell the colossal Yorkshire manor and be forced to move into (gasp!) a house staffed by only eight servants. The story line was all-too-neatly wrapped up when Matthew, the newest member of the family, finally agreed to hand over a fortune that came in a recent inheritance to save Downton.

Downton Place (in reality, Grey's Court) where the Crawleys would have to relocate (Image via
Downton Place (in reality, Grey’s Court) where the Crawleys would have to relocate (Image via

I guess it’s a no-brainer that they didn’t sell in the end, because otherwise we’d have to start calling the show “Downton Place,” but I’m still intrigued by the deep-seated class issues underlying the show. Since the first season, we’ve witnessed social unrest brewing among the lower classes. Meanwhile, the aristocratic protagonists try to protect their riches and traditions, all, supposedly, in the name of social responsibility. As Lord Grantham once explained to his eldest daughter, Mary: “I am a custodian, my dear, not an owner.”

That’s a fascinating word, custodian. It’s one I heard just the other day, but in reference to the role of museums. Just as the Crawleys are responsible for maintaining the honorable grandeur of Downton Abbey, so museums are custodians of the past.

Custodians cling to physical artifacts. In Downton’s case, that means property, 22-course meals, and perfectly polished silver. In museums, it’s our precious collections that we need to preserve. And preserving a collection goes beyond “no touching” rules and restoring objects in a conservation lab; museum custodianship often encompasses “protecting” a work of art’s legacy, as well.

Image via Tumblr
Image via Tumblr

In an article in the New Criterion last March, James Panero bemoaned the changing nature of museums, answering the question “What is a museum?” with “Lately, it seems, the answer is whatever we want.” He longs for the days when the permanent collection, rather than the visitor, was the end-all-be-all of our cultural institutions. Museums these days, they just don’t appreciate a thing, he tells us; they’re willing to sell off the object some fancy guy gave us just to raise a few bucks! Through alarmist warnings and a few choice patriotic anecdotes, Panero attempts to tug at our heartstrings about how we need to put the focus back on the objects in the collection and the histories that built them:

In countless cases, the concern is that museum professionals have come to regard their founding generations with suspicion rather than reverence. They question the legacy of these industrialists and “robber barons.” They suppress the American idiosyncrasies of their institutions to appeal to international ideals… They advance a new populist rhetoric that trumpets appeal and “access” over beauty and virtue. They attack their own “imposing” facilities and “elite” permanent collections. They undermine the art and architecture their supporters had given to the public trust… But what if museums were to see these histories as something worthy of preservation and reverence?

With all this talk of reverence, I realized that Panero isn’t all that different from the dying nobility of Downton Abbey. To Lord Grantham, being an earl means preserving his family’s legacy and employing townspeople on his land (oh, so he’s a job creator). But despite the good intentions, a sense of duty can be a perilous thing. In Downton, the Crawleys hang onto duty to delude themselves into thinking that the abyss between their affluence and the 99 percent’s relative impoverishment is not only natural, but just as well.

According to Panero, the public owes an unwavering — and unexamined — deference to the bankrollers that founded museums and the objects these folks deemed worthy of our respect. Duty, reverence, custodianship, whatever you want to call it: These are all strategies that give us a pass, permitting us to overlook our actions because we blindly believe what we’re doing is what needs to happen.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an extremist, aiming to dismantle museums and the hegemony that pervades them. I’m no Branson, the angry chauffeur-turned-Earl’s-son-in-law who reads Marx and waxes on and on about a free Ireland. I’m more like the Crawley daughters who begin, to various degrees, to doubt the status quo, supporting issues such as women’s suffrage. I’ll take a slow and thoughtful evolution over an overnight revolution, but change must start with understanding that the things we hold dearest to us might be the things we need to question most.

Image from Object Stories (Screenshot by Hyperallergic)
Image from Object Stories (Screenshot by Hyperallergic)

Mike Murawski, director of  education at the Portland Art Museum, recently warned against the dangers of only telling a single story in museums. Citing the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie as his inspiration, Murawski believes that “our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and all of those stories matter and deserve to have a voice.” The minute we limit ourselves to a single story — say, the hierarchy of Downton Abbey, or a static reading of an art object — we forbid room for other interpretations. With this in mind, Murawski’s team recently launched Object Stories, a project that allows visitors to record personal stories about objects in the collection. The more connections we allow a work of art accrue, the more meaningful it becomes.

In his wistful nostalgia for the golden days of cultural appreciation, Panero makes a major oversight. He laments how museums emphasize the visitor at the expense of collection (“now the artifacts at greatest risk may be themselves”), forgetting that, without the visitor, the collection has no value. An object is just an object, after all, until people imbue it with a multiplicity of meanings. We can’t continue to think of museums as custodians of objects, upholding the canonized version of history while ignoring alternative readings, lest we head down the same inevitable path as the British aristocracy: By the time World War II ended, social upheaval and financial hardships effectively dismantled the great country estates. If Downton Abbey can teach us anything about museums, it’s that the ideas of the people are much more powerful than property or tradition.

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