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Re-mapping female space: The politics of exhibition in nineteenth-century women writers

Chih-Ping Chen, University of Massachusetts Amherst


My dissertation investigates the “museum” as a site of cultural politics intersecting with the spectacle of the female body. My study aims to extend the cultural and historical readings of museums and exhibitions and focuses on female encounters with the display, collection, and civic education functions of nineteenth-century exhibition phenomena. I identify the exhibition logic in an emerging national museum culture as a triangular dynamic of the host, the exhibit, and the viewer. In this triangle, the host is figured in different roles—as an exhibitor, as a representative of the patriarchal/imperialistic culture, and as an observer of the female body. Posing the female body as a locus of discipline and resistance, women writers in that period borrow this triangulated model to destabilize patriarchal power relations: Their heroines confront the host in a variety of exhibitions to gain a measure of agency and selfhood. ^ My first chapter traces the host-exhibit-viewer relations in the increasing popular mass visual market beginning in the eighteenth-century and culminating in Great Exhibition of 1851. With the images of power, I give an overview of the uses of “exhibition” as a metaphor in both male- and female-authored fiction. Chapter Two explores the “freak show” as a metaphor, in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, a metaphor for women's marginalization and re-imaging of a self in a patriarchal society but also a metaphor that reinforces imperialist dominance. Chapter Three investigates the female spectatorship of visual art in Brontë's Villette as an act of subversion and a critique of the patriarchal constraints on women's visibility. Chapter Four examines, in George Eliot's treatment of her heroines' relations with men in the museum space in “Mr. Gilfil's Love Story” and Middlemarch, how the museum as a cultural classroom can become problematic when “culture” as field of knowledge is defined as exclusively masculine. In my readings, I seek to open new understanding of these authors and explore the dialogical complexity of museology, literature, and societal tensions. ^

Subject Area

Women's studies|English literature

Recommended Citation

Chen, Chih-Ping, "Re-mapping female space: The politics of exhibition in nineteenth-century women writers" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988770.