History of Archaeology
Museum Postcards: A brief History
By Dr Jamie Larkin (Birkbeck)
The history of museums has recently begun to garner increasing academic attention. While this is welcome, the focus of such intellectual enquiry has tended to rest with the evolution of collections and nature of exhibitionary practices. As yet, little attention has been given over to considering the development of the museum in an operational capacity. Examining the managerial, bureaucratic, commercial and histories of museums can help shed light their institutional development, specifically how their production of culture related to wider social contexts.
This post outlines the development of museum postcards as a way for museums to spread knowledge of their collections, but also the nascent commercialism their sale helped inaugurate. Having changed little terms of form or content in the 100+ years since they were first introduced museum postcards are a particularly interesting subject of enquiry; a museum-goer in 1900 would have no problem recognising and using postcards sold in the British Museum today. While this post can only provide a brief overview, museum postcards provide us with a relatively static cultural form with which we can trace attitudes across time. As such there is great scope to consider various cultural and economic facets of museum development through these objects.
The postcard was first introduced in Austria in 1869, and in the UK the following year. Its early form consisted of a blank card on which a short message could be written on one side, along with the recipient’s address. The postcard revolutionised forms of communication in the mid-to-late 19th century: it turned the formal and expensive tradition of letter writing into a system by which people could correspond more causally and cheaply. The popularity was evident in that 575,000 postcards were sent on their first day of sale (Staff, 1966: 48). These early postcards were primarily produced by the Post Office and thus regulated by the state. However, towards the end of the 19th century regulations were loosened and private stationery firms entered the market.
These firms saw potential in the gradual changes that the form of postcards were undergoing. In the 1890s ‘Pictorial Postcards’ were introduced with an image on the front (e.g. an exotic location/famous landmark) and space for writing on the reverse. The novelty and cheapness of sharing visual images resulted in a massive increase in their popularity, leading to what is generally termed the ‘Golden Age’ of postcards. An example of the scale of postcard enterprises may be found with the London-based stationery and printing firm of Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd. From printing their first series of Pictorial Postcards in 1899 of London views, they had 10,000 different cards by 1903 (Staff, 1966; see also Anon, 2017).
The popularity of postcards meant that a massive range of images were produced, from the unique to the mundane. Museums and ancient monuments – the subject of the burgeoning wave of tourism - were prime subjects for postcards. It is difficult to pinpoint the first time a British museum is depicted in a postcard. Staff (1966: 65) has suggested the earliest instances were in postcards manufactured by the firm of Wrench in the early 1900s for (privately owned) Warwick Castle, some Office of Works sites, the National Gallery and the Tower of London. However, Sadler’s recently published collection (2016) demonstrates the range of museum postcards at this time was much broader, featuring postmarked postcards depicting the following: British Museum (1901), Grand Hotel, Museum & Aquarium, Scarborough (1902), Bury Art Gallery (1903), Harris Free Library and Museum, Preston (1903) and Leicester Museum (1903). Significantly, the British Museum card was manufactured by Raphael Tuck while the Scarborough card was produced in Saxony, reflecting the continental nature of the postcard craze.
The extent to which museums benefited economically from the early circulation of these images is unclear. Staff (1966: 65) does not comment on whether commercial agreements were in place in order for these cards to be sold onsite. It does seem likely that for internal photography of museums some negotiation (and therefore consent) was likely entered into, but the situation is unclear where only the exterior of museum building was the subject, particularly for sites that did not sell postcards themselves.
One of the earliest recorded examples of a museum pro-actively harnessing the popularity of postcards is the British Museum. In 1912 the Museum partnered with Oxford University Press and produced a range of postcards detailing items in its collection, ranging over 135 subjects and costing one penny each. The same year the Museum introduced its first catalogue stall, providing, for the first time, a bespoke sales area for its publications, guidebooks, and its range of postcards. This was a specific effort to attempt to ‘widen the influence and increase the interest of the museum’ (British Museum, 1913).The Museum sold 155,000 postcards in its first year, and the endeavour was judged a great success in subsequent annual reports. In this context postcards provided popular, educational souvenirs for visitors that allowed the Museum to disseminate particular images of its collection. It also provided a useful economic resource for the museum that would play an important part in funding the organisation’s publications schedule in years ahead (see Larkin 2016: 68-96).
While similar schemes were introduced at institutions of comparable size, such as the National Gallery (1915) and the V&A (c.1915), development in the provinces was probably somewhat slower, as it was unlikely that either appropriate sales infrastructure or a desire to enter into commercial relationships were in place. An indication as to how these relationships played out may be gleamed from the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough. In 1914, Baker Hudson, the librarian and curator received a request from a Mr Beckwith, a photographer, who proposed to take photographs in the gallery for reproduction as postcards. He suggested a small fee in lieu of royalties, but this was something the rate-funded Library and Museum did not feel they could accept and the offer was declined. The earliest reference to the Museum selling postcards is 1926 (Louise Harrison, pers comm, 2015).
Beyond commercial considerations, which for all but the larger sites would have likely been nugatory, the more important aspect of postcard production was that institutions were able to control visual representations of their site and collections. This was the case for ancient monuments, which in the early years of the 20th century had become increasingly popular with day-trippers. With this growing tourism souvenir sales had taken hold at a number of sites, in particular Stonehenge, resulting in variety of images of the site in circulation (see Richards, 2009). When Stonehenge was taken into guardianship in 1918, the Ministry of Works prohibited such paraphernalia, introducing their own guidebook and postcard selection shortly afterwards, enabling them to frame interpretation of the site in ways they saw fit.
By the 1930s, the growth of postcard sales at museums and other site had become more commonplace. Indeed, new series were announced in the Museums Journal, such as a series of 12 that Peterborough Museum published in 1934 (vol 34/iss 2). Intriguingly, the influence of postcards on taste was specifically addressed by J.E. Barton (1934: 309), in a speech to the Museums Association in the 1930s. He noted:
"All of you are forced by circumstance to retain on your walls many pictures that you know are bad, pictures that you would burn if you could. Might you not at least refrain from trading in postcards which perpetuate these empty survivals, and the sale of which appears to invest them with official commendation. If you take a parallel from literature, no State-aided school would now be permitted to bring up its pupils on the poetical works of Mrs. Hemas or Adelaide Anne Procter. But the postcard and photograph stalls of every museum in the country give actual prominence to pictorial works, compared with which the lyrics of those ladies are intellectually important and emotionally dignified."
Here then, postcard was deemed so important to the overall cultural impact of museums, that a curatorial focus on the commercial aspects of the institution was called for. Such calls were increasingly made into the 1940s and 1950s, with a report drawn up for Dartington Hall noting that the purpose of art galleries should be ‘to stimulate a wider and deeper knowledge and appreciation of art and design in order to raise the prevailing standard of public taste’, and that postcards have an important part to play in such endeavours (DHT, 1946: 31, 105).
Further work needs to be done to develop a more detailed understanding of the cultural and economic impact of museum postcards in the museum, but it is clear that their introduction played, and continues to play, a small but significant role in museum operations. Postcards provide a means by which museums can regulate external images of cultural objects beyond the galleries, what Malraux (1967) has termed the ‘museum without walls’. Moreover, the sale of these items created a commercial aperture in the museum: a space in which visitors could make choices on the types of image to take away with them, creating a feedback loop that would gradually inform relations between the museum and its public.
Hopefully this post shows that areas of museum activity that are often considered incidental to its core curatorial function can reveal important insights. Indeed, there are a number of other areas ripe for exploration, looking at historical museum operations from the broom cupboard, to catering facilities, to the board room. Specifically, approaching museums in this way serves to reintroduce the human aspect to their study. As much understanding the historical outputs of these institutions, we need to understand how museums were used as living, working, spaces. Perhaps nowhere has the social aspect been better broached that in Penelope Fitzgerald’s (2014 ) fictionalised account of the British Museum in The Golden Child. In the end, through knowing more about the inner workings of the institution, we may better understand the ways and means by which public culture has been and continues to be produced.
Anon. 2017. History of Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd. [accessed 15 July 2017]. Available at: https://tuckdb.org/history
Barton, J.E. 1934. The Education of Public Taste. Museums Journal 34 (8): 297 -308.
Fitzgerald, P. 2014 . The Golden Child. London: Fourth Estate.
Larkin, J. 2016. 'All Museums Will Become Department Stores’: The Development and Implications of Retailing at Museums and Heritage Sites. Archaeology International 19: 109–121. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/ai.1917 [open access]
Larkin, J. 2016. Trading on the Past: an examination of the cultural and economic roles of shops at museums and heritage sites. Unpublished PhD thesis, University College London.
Malraux, A. 1967. Museum without walls. New York: Doubleday & Company.
Richards, J. 2009. Inspired by Stonehenge. Stroud: Hobnob Press.
Sadler, N. 2016. Museums: The Postcard Collection. Stroud: Amberley.
Staff, F. 1966. The Picture Postcard & Its Origins. London: Lutterworth Press.
British Museum. 1913. Account of the Income and Expenditure of the British Museum for the year ending the 31st day of March, 1913. London: British Museum archive.
I have English post cards over 100 yrs old before London was bombed
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