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/Seen: Revisiting Museums of the past, Again

If you were lucky enough to attend our 2021 JASP, you had the opportunity to hear Janine Barchas’s plenary address entitled “What Jane Saw,” which included a guided digital tour of the Shakespeare gallery and the British institution as those museums would have appeared in Jane Austen’s day. That digital exhibit is still available for you to peruse at your own leisure here:

Strolling through these memory lanes is a great way to immerse yourself in the experience of how museum patrons at the time of Jane Austen would have perceived Shakespeare. As you explore, you will discover how to navigate by clicking on side walls to turn to face them and doors to travel into new rooms. When you find a portrait or painting that you wish to see closer, simply click on that and it will zoom and enhance, as well as provide information about it. There are also floor plans and a catalog of artwork in case you get lost. Each of these digital museum recreations have their own “about WJS” tab with a wealth of history and context for when you want to learn more, but even a casual viewing can be a lot of fun.

Below, we have compiled a brief overview of the two museums.

The Shakespeare Gallery

This hall existed from 1789 and lasted until 1805 when financial difficulties, as well as the death of the founder John Boydell, forced it to close down. During its fifteen years, Boydell continued to curate and add to the collection but the version we see in this digital project is as it would have appeared in 1796 because Jane herself probably visited the exhibit that year. The walls are covered with art by what would have been mostly contemporary artists and featuring scenes from Shakespearean plays. The ambition of the project was to elevate Shakespeare in the public mind as well as promote the artists featured in the exhibit. (Scavenger hunt question: How many paintings can you find that are just scenery?)

The British Institution

Instead of featuring several artists interpreting Shakespeare, this exhibit follows the work of one artist, renowned portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. Most of the subjects of his work were the rich and famous and/or powerful - including actors who would have performed Shakespeare! However, not all the paintings included are portraits. (Scavenger hunt question: can you find the paintings that are not portraits in this exhibit?)

The exhibit itself lasted only three months in 1813. Jane herself got to see it on May 24 and wrote about the experience in a letter as she found likenesses to her characters in the paintings!

Do you have a favorite painting from either of these collections? How do you think Jane liked these exhibits? We hope you enjoy these selections and get a better sense of how the people of Jane Austen’s time appreciated art and Shakespeare.


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