Ryan Nutting - Presenter Profile

“Models for the Edification of Those Who Are Not in the Position to See Them in Real Life”: Collections of Miniature Ethnographic Models at the Horniman Free Museum


About My Research

How do you portray or construct knowledge?  Do you use objects, symbols, or words?  This work explores how the Horniman Free Museum, London, collected and exhibited miniature models in the late nineteenth century to portray Asian cultures.

The aim of this study is to investigate the use of miniature objects in the Horniman Free Museum during the 1890s. This study focuses on determining what kinds of objects the museum’s founder, Frederick Horniman, and the staff of the museum collected, how the museum exhibited these objects, and if the use of these objects corresponded with how other late nineteenth-century cultural institutions and museums used similar objects.  Little scholarship exists that documents the use of miniature objects in museums and especially late nineteenth-century museums.

This research seeks to answer three primary questions:

  1. What kinds of miniature objects did Frederick Horniman purchase for use in the museum?
  2. How did the Horniman Free Museum display and interpret these objects to represent people, places, or ideas?
  3. Does the exhibition of these objects at the Horniman Free Museum reflect contemporary ideas regarding the collection and display of miniature objects?

This study included research focusing on the collecting and exhibitions at the Horniman Free Museum in the 1890s.  My research included reviewing interviews with and travelogues written by Frederick Horniman as well as publications written by the staff of the Horniman Free Museum including the museum’s annual reports and guidebooks. I also examined sets of miniature figures purchased by Frederick Horniman in Asia in 1894 and 1895 for use in museum’s exhibitions and other sets of figures from the late nineteenth century.  Furthermore, my research included evaluating works on the history of the Horniman Free Museum written in the newspapers and journals of the 1890s and more recently by former staff members of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Additionally, I examined scholarly literature on the role of museums and exhibition design in the nineteenth century in order to determine how Frederick Horniman displayed these sets of miniature objects and if other nineteenth-century museums and cultural institutions used similar methods.  This included reviewing the works of late twentieth century museum historians as well as contemporaries of Frederick Horniman who helped to shape museum policies in the late nineteenth-century.

My Research Findings

Three main outputs of the research emerged.

Firstly, the ideas regarding the purposes of private late Victorian museums need to be reconsidered.  Current theories regarding the establishment of these museums primarily centre upon the collectors’ self-promotion or the collectors’ social theories. Although the Horniman Free Museum originally existed as a private showcase for Frederick Horniman’s collection, as the museum developed over the 1890s Frederick Horniman and the staff of the Horniman Free Museum focused on using the museum the provide educational benefits to his local community.  This included opening the museum free of charge four days a week, delivering public lectures on objects from the museum’s collection, providing free guide books to all visitors detailing the museum’s exhibitions, encouraging local community members to volunteer at the museum, and hosting a variety of receptions and community events at the museum.

Secondly, by using miniature models from Asia to provide information on facets of Asian life, Frederick Horniman and the staff of the Horniman Free Museum combine two of three current dominant theories regarding the uses of miniature objects.  First, the museum repeatedly stresses the educational value of visiting the museum in its publications.  Moreover, newspaper accounts from the 1890s describing these sets of miniature models highlight the educational use of these objects and argue that they allow visitors a glimpse of life in Asia.  However, the use of these miniature models also emphasizes how the viewer of these objects possesses control over the subject since visitor accounts from the museum In the 1890s indicate how they tower over the objects and possess the ability to manipulate and control the subject.  By using objects in this manner the Horniman Free Museum differs from other nineteenth-century museums and bears a similarity to commercial exhibitions of the time such as the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Finally, both of the above research findings point to new ideas on why people manipulate the scale of an object to construct and display knowledge and new approaches to the study of material culture.  The current theories regarding the study of material culture rarely take into account the size of an object, but instead focus primarily on the production, uses, or origin of an object.  However, this work examines the collection and display of objects that only possess one function- to be used for displays and exhibitions in order to convey knowledge.  Based upon this work further study could be conducted to examine the purposes of manipulating the scale of an object in other museums, and cultural institutions, both in the past and the present.

About Ryan Nutting

Ryan Nutting is a research student working towards completion of his doctoral degree in the School of Museum Studies. Ryan is supervised by Dr Sandra Dudley and Dr Julian North.

School of Museum Studies

 University of Leicester

 University Road



Ryan will present his work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 6 July 2015 - see Ryan's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

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