Literary Museums

Rita Baleiro (ESGHT, University of the Algarve, CiTUR, Portugal)

A literary museum is a thematic museum dedicated to acquiring, preserving and communicating literature through museographical codes to promote knowledge about literature and its role in society (International Committee for Literary and Composers Museums, 2019).

Two of the first European literary museums date to the 1500s: the Petrarch’s homes (Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, in Avignon, and Arquà, in Padova). They were former dwellings of the author, which became the destination of literary pilgrims. Thus, they became the first products of literary tourism in Europe and represent instances of embryonic European literary tourism (Hendrix, 2008).

From this period up to the nineteenth century, the allure of the writer’s genius gradually enhanced, fostering the creation of authors’ home museums: a category in the constellation of literary museums. Several factors contributed to this phenomenon: the 1600s’ printing revolution allowed more people to access books and helped flower the notion of literary celebrity; the preservation of writers’ former houses to cater to visitors’ interests (Hendrix, 2020; Taylor & Pouliot, 2020) and the rise of the novel (in the 1700s), which inspired many literary-inspired visits. The Grand Tour (in the 1700s and 1800s) was also vital in expanding the interest in literary authors’ homes (Westover, 2012). Concurrently, transport developments and broader social trends, such as the Romantic movement, significantly attracted educated middle-class readers to the places of the “novelists and poets of the day” (Robinson & Andersen, 2002: 13).

These practices promoted the preservation of former writers’ dwellings and their transformation into museums. The number of visitors gradually increased, and these museums became tourist attractions. However, the early 20th century witnessed dissidence, notably from literary writers, regarding the former houses of writers turned into literary museums. One such example was by Henry James, who published The Birthplace (1903), a short story in which he satirises author idolatry and delivers the message that the works of writers are far more critical than the biographical details of their lives. A year later, Virginia Woolf, after visiting Haworth, the site of the Brontë sisters' house museum, also expressed her reservations about the significance of such visits if they do not contribute to the understanding of literary texts: “I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys. It is better to read Carlyle in your own study chair than to visit the sound-proof room and pore over the manuscripts at Chelsea. […] The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books.” (Woolf, [1904] 1977: 166). Woolf’s statement results from the fact that, in her view, the Brontë sisters’ house museum was “[…] a pallid and inanimate collection of objects” ([1904] 1977]:166) that did not add to the understanding of the Brontë sisters’ work.

However, years later, Woolf’s opinion changed, highlighting the fact that literary museums play a critical role in preserving built heritage associated with authors and that visits to the monuments of the writers are a sensible way to understand them: “London, happily, is becoming full of great men’s houses, bought for the nation and preserved entire with the chairs they sat on and the cups they drank from, their umbrellas […]. And it is no frivolous curiosity that sends us to Dickens’s house and Johnson’s house and Carlyle’s house, and Keats’s house. We know them from their houses – it would seem to be a fact that writers stamp themselves upon their possessions more indelibly.” ([1932] 1975: 31).

Despite the occasional divergent opinions about literary museums, the twentieth and the twentieth-first centuries witnessed the expansion of these museums that preserve, document and celebrate literature and writers. Literary museums developed into several categories with the pursuit of conservation and preservation for memorial and heritage purposes (Bonniot-Mirloup & Blasquiet, 2016). These museums house collections of books, manuscripts, tools of the literary writing trade, photographs, videos, personal effects, period objects, or replicas of such objects. They may also house research centres, libraries, permanent and non-permanent exhibitions and function as artist residencies, centres for literary and cultural education and venues for workshops and conferences.

Although writers’ museums are the most significant and popular category of the literary museums (some were even created by the writers themselves, such as the example of Günter Grass’s Museum), there are other categories: the literary characters museums (e.g., Sherlock Holmes Museum); the children’s literature museums (e.g., Roald Dahl’s Museum); the regional literary museums (e.g., the Vienna Literature Museum; the national literary museums (e.g., the Literary Tower, in Portugal); the museums about a literary work (e.g., The Museum of Innocence); the museums on a particular literary genre (e.g., the Eric Carle Graphic Novel Museum) and the “Library” literary museums (e.g., the Antero de Quental House), these literary museums play a very important role as research and documentation centres, although they may hold small exhibitions of the author’s personal effects and books. The last category is the Literary Eco-museums (the landscape associated with an author/work). This last category refers to "living museums" without walls (e.g., the Wordsworthian Lake District, where several museum units exist: The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction, Wordsworth Grasmere, Beatrix Potter’s House).

In short, in times of cultural globalisation, literary museums play a vital role in inventorying, documenting, preserving and advocating for literary heritage, practice and knowledge of the uniqueness of local and national identities and collective memory. They generate knowledge about the territory, and the tourism industry soon recognised them as powerful tourism resources as they are appealing across multiple markets. Literary museums, namely writers’ house museums, are potent symbols of the writers and their literary art, a testimony to their time and place and a place where visitors may experience the writers’ intimacy and add information to the portrait of the writers and the understanding of their work, as Virginia Woolf advocated. In the scope of literary tourism, they are valuable literary places where visitors, authors, and literature meet (Watson, 2006).

How to cite this dictionary entry: Baleiro, R. (2023). Literary Museums. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

  • Bonniot-Mirloup, A. & Blasquiet, H. (2016). De l’oeuvre aux lieux: La maison d’écrivain pour passerelle (France). Territoire en mouvement Revue de géographie et aménagement, 31.
  • Hendrix, H. (Ed.) (2008). Writers’ houses and the making of memory. Routledge.
  • Hendrix, H. (2020). The early musealization of writers’ and artists’ houses through guidebooks. Nordic Museology,1, 8-22.
  • International Committee for Literary and Composers Museums (2019). What is a literary museum?,
  • Robinson, M. & Andersen, H.-C. (2002) (Eds). Literature and tourism: Reading and writing tourism texts. Continuum.
  • Taylor, J. E., & Pouliot, A. (2020) Introduction: Placing the author in ecologies of literary tourism, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 42(4), 381-389.
  • Watson, N. J. (2006). The literary tourist: Readers and places in Romantic and Victorian Britain. Palgrave.
  • Westover, P. (2012). Necromanticism: Travelling to meet the dead, 1750-1860. Palgrave Macmillan
  • Woolf, V. ([1904] 1977) «Haworth, November 1904». Reproduced in M. Lyon (Ed.), Books and portraits: Some further selections from the literary and biographical writings of Virginia Woolf. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Woolf, V. ([1932] 1975). Great men’s houses, In Good Housekeeping, 21(2), 1932, 10–11, 102–103. Reproduced in V. Woolf, The London scene: Six essays on London life, 31-39. HarperCollins.