Why did the Victorians collect with such a vengeance and exhibit in museums? Focusing on this key nineteenth-century enterprise, Barbara J. Black illuminates British culture of the period by examining the cultural power that this collecting and exhibiting possessed. Through its museums, she argues, Victorian London constructed itself as a world city.

Using the tools of cultural criticism, social history, and literary analysis, Black roots Victorian museum culture in key political events and cultural forces: British imperialism, exploration, and tourism; advances in science and changing attitudes about knowledge; the commitment to improved public taste through mass education; the growth of middle-class dominance and the resulting bourgeois fetishism and commodity culture; and the democratization of luxury engendered by the French and industrial revolutions. She covers a wide range of genres—from poetry to museum guidebooks to the triple-decker novel—and treats three London museums as case studies: Sir John Soane's house-museum, the Natural History Museum, and the exemplary South Kensington.

While On Exhibit provides a fascinating analysis of Victorian society, it also reminds us how modern the Victorians were—how, in crucial ways, our culture derives from the Victorian era. Forging connections among museums, urbanism, and modernity, Black provokes us to examine cultural imperialism and the costs and advantages of cultural consensus.