Marie-Ève Marchand recently had an interesting post on the OUP History Blog on period rooms as museum-made artifacts, based on some of her work on the South Kensington Museum Sérilly Room, one of the roots of the practice of museums creating period rooms. Her description of what a period room is:
A period room is a display combining architectural components, pieces of furniture, and decorative objects organized to evoke—and in some rare cases recreate—an interior, very often domestic and dating from a past era.
As she notes, period rooms have been extraordinarily popular, giving a greater sense of coherence and unity than most museum exhibits, and also a sense of immersion, but there has been a great deal of criticism of them in recent years as space-hogging and inauthentic.
A great deal of the public face of a museum is, in one way or another, classification. Museums have to have some kind of organization of what they exhibit, and some way of giving people a sense of what they are seeing, and that requires some kind of method or principle for classifying things. There are a great many ends for which one could classify, each one providing different desiderata for classification, but when we are talking about museums, two ends of classification are especially important: preservation and pedagogy. Much of how a museum works is concerned with keeping track of things, ordering things so that they will be properly maintained, and so forth; thus preservation is one of the major goals in how a museum structures everything. But I take it that period rooms are primarily geared toward the end of pedagogy: they are there to teach. A classification geared for teaching needs to provide some way for people to contextualize what they are being shown, and I think the absolutely conclusive argument for the value of period rooms is that they are instruments of pedagogy that have few peers in the context of a museum. The major reason for this, I think, is that unlike most kinds of museum exhibit, they are not merely chronological or etiological means of classification, but functional; understanding things by room-function comes very easily to human beings.
A period room, of course, is a sign. If we try to understand what kind of sign it is using Peirce's classification of signs, which is the most widely respected classification in use today, period rooms seem clearly to be 'rhematic iconic sinsigns'. A rheme is a generalization of the idea of a logical term; it is opposed to a dicent and a delome, which are generalizations of propositions and arguments, respectively. The primary function of a rheme is to stand for something, which may or may not exist; its success at this does not itself depend on any strict correspondence to anything or any meeting of higher-level conventional standards -- it just has to be recognizable as standing for something. An icon (in Peirce's sense), as opposed to an index or symbol, has its ability to signify from its resemblance to what it signifies (an index signifies by causal connection and a symbol by conventional representation). And a sinsign is a sign that represents insofar as it is itself an actually existing thing, as opposed to a qualisign (representing insofar as it involves a quality that other things could possibly have) and a legisign (representing insofar as it represents a necessity or law). Every period room is a sinsign that gives an individual example of at least one more general phenomenon (a legisign) that is that kind of period room.
The reason for going through all of this is that if we look at what other kinds of things can be rhematic iconic sinsigns, the most obvious examples are diagrams -- particular diagrams rather than the general idea of a kind of diagram. This, I think, is significant for understanding how period rooms work: they can almost be considered a kind of historical diagram. Diagrams work by guiding, and ultimately training, the imagination. From the way some kind of curators talk about period rooms, you would think that their view of pedagogy consists in showing people an isolated object and then lecturing them about it. But words are a fairly high-level and abstract way to teach and learn. There is a reason why lecturers have a tendency to go to diagrams whenever they can do so, and that is that teaching requires not merely letting people know what words are relevant (which is all a lecture does), but also guiding their imagination so that they use it correctly in working through an idea. ('Correctly' here means 'in a way that, practically speaking, is good enough to get them closer to the right way of thinking about things.) In this sense we can see that worries about the 'authenticity' of a period room are to some extent misguided; just as it is not necessary for a diagram to be perfectly accurate, but only sufficiently so for practical purposes, so too a period room can fulfill its function as long as it is not grossly misleading. Period rooms are by nature approximate, as diagrams are approximate; this does not in any way affect their value.
This relates, of course, to Marchand's argument. Training the imagination, as part of pedagogy, has to begin with human beings as they are, and give them an imagination-model they can use to think with. It has to be something that can strike their imagination, and this will not always be the same through time or in different places. Because of this, the (successful) period room is also a sign, at any given time, of both the kind of teaching people are trying to do and the kinds of things that appeal to people's imagination.
Taking all of this into account, we could perhaps give a rough definition of a period room: A period room is a curator-developed instrument consisting in a bounded spatial composition of primarily visual elements, the salient features of which are traces of the past or (at times) imitations of such traces, classifying them according to their contribution to the function of a room designated in terms of a period, for the purpose of training the imagination so that we are better able to contextualize traces of the past. This gives us the formal cause (the classification according to room-function), the final cause (imagination-training), the material cause (the physical components in the room, especially insofar as they are viewable), and the efficient cause (somebody acting at least in the role of a curator using the period room as an instrument).
Various Links of Interest
* Thomas Izbicki and Matthias Kaufmann, School of Salamanca, at the SEP. A nice, quick survey of some of the important ideas.
* The Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana recently restored Raphael's cartoon (guiding sketch) of The School of Athens; The History Blog discusses what they did for the restoration.
* An interview with Peter Adamson on the history of philosophy
* Steve Perisho on the history of the phrase 'semper reformanda'.
* A typology of fictional life swaps at Lapham's.
* Jonathan Brich on joint know-how.
* Stephen Bainbridge, Lay Review With Teeth: What (Didn’t) Happen at the Vatican’s Sexual Abuse Summit at "Public Discourse"
* Jaspreet Singh Boparai, The French Genocide that Has Been Air-Brushed from History, on the Vendee
* James Chastek, Rationalism and the object of intuition
* Jennifer Frey, Happiness as the Constitutive Principle of Action in Thomas Aquinas
* A look at the most recent technology in nuclear reactors.
* Duke, the most beloved mayor in America, recently died.
Jules Verne, The End of Nana Sahib
Charles Péguy, Notes on Bergson and Descartes
Jaroslav Pelikan, Faust the Theologian
Plotinus, The Enneads
Blaise Pascal, Pensees
Jules Verne, L'Archipel en feu