Museums in Books: A Room of One’s Own

It’s the return of my favourite series in my adventures in museums, Museums in Books.  In this instalment, I’m looking at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Now, I’m not usually a fan of Virginia Woolf’s work. I did, however, enjoy Orlando, but the protagonist is essentially a timelord which made it so much more palatable.

George_Charles_Beresford_-_Virginia_Woolf_in_1902_-_Restoration

Virgina Woolf by George Charles Beresford

In A Room of One’s Own, we return, once again, to The British Museum. How fitting for a member of the Bloomsbury set? It’s remarkable just how many books this museum has popped up in; Dracula, Maurice. It even makes a noteworthy appearance in children’s literature too, Rick Riordan fans will remember when he blew it up in The Red Pyramid. I’m sure it’s in other books too, I just need to track them down.

The Great Court at the British Museum with the Reading Room and Senate House in the background

The Great Court at the British Museum with the Reading Room and Senate House in the background

Back to A Room of One’s Own. It is a bit different to the texts I’ve tackled so far in this series. It isn’t a fictional text, rather, it’s an extended essay in which Woolf explores the theme of “Women and Fiction.” Her central argument is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Because that’s not elitist at all.

And anyone familiar with J.K. Rowling’s biography (for example!) knows that it is completely untrue. Yes, Rowling was writing in a very different time, but when she was writing Harry Potter, she had neither money nor a room of her own.

Back to the book. Woolf makes her way to the British Museum in the second chapter, after spending the first at Oxbridge. She goes to the museum in search of answers, in search of truth:

“If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and pencil, is truth?”

I like the idea of the museum as a place of truth. There are where humanity can take a long hard look at itself, what it has done, and come to a conclusion. But, it isn’t to the objects and artefacts that Woolf heads, but rather to the books. What she finds is not quite what she claims to have been looking for. All the books written about women were by men; the patriarchy controls the narrative of women’s history. Naturally, she gets very angry indeed.

If we think about the artefacts in the museum, we would probably see a similar theme. Women are depicted and presented all over the place; be they goddess, wife, slave. But who is doing the presenting? In some cases we know, a maker has left their mark. But so often that maker is that well-known, multi disciplined artist, Anon.

So, how does Woolf present her museum experience? Let’s look at the narrative – Oxbridge poses the question, and the British Museum is the place where the answer is sought. The Museum is a place for the scholars, not necessarily the curious.

Who is visiting the museum? It is a version of Woolf herself complete with her £500 a year and a room of her own. She’s well-off, she’s educated, and apparently doesn’t come into contact with another human being until she leaves the museum to go to a cafe for lunch.

Because that’s not elitist at all.

 

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