Victoria and Albert Museum
Introduction
Museum, collections and their histories
The idealist enterprise and the applied arts
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Industrial arts and the exhibition ideal
Teaching by example
An encyclopedia of treasures
The empire of things
National consciousness
Collecting the Twentieth Century
Bibliography
a grand design the art of the Victorian and Albert museum
 
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Museums, collections and their histories

Museums, collections, and their histories

Malcolm Baker
Fig.4. The V&A's Silver Gallery

Founded with the aim of preserving the past, museums, their collections, and their architecture have often been seen as presenting authoritative narratives of history to successive generations of visitors. Like the pyramids in the eyes of Renaissance writers, museum collections are expected to endure until the end of time. The individual artifacts and works of art considered worthy of inclusion in museum collections are assumed to be similarly enduring because of their aesthetic or documentary value. But museums can change over time, as can the meanings ascribed to the objects they contain-changes that often reflect shifting cultural and social conditions. Starting from the assumption that art institutions, their collections, and the meanings of those collections evolve, A Grand Design presents an account of one of the world's largest and most important museums and how its collections were formed, displayed, and constantly reinterpreted. The book-and the exhibition it documents-deal not only with the institution's origins but also with the ongoing life of the collections and, through the continuing relevance of the subject's themes, even the Museum's future.

The Victoria and Albert Museum was established in 1852. Following its move in 1857 to South Kensington (then on the western edge of central London), it was for more than four decades known as the South Kensington Museum, until its renaming by Queen Victoria in 1899. Founded by the British Government following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Museum from the start differed markedly in both its aims and the scope of its collections from two other existing national museums: the British Museum and the National Gallery. These institutions had their own governing boards of trustees, and large parts of their collections were assembled by private individuals. By contrast, the South Kensington Museum, though benefiting from some outstandingly generous private bequests, contained collections that either had been purchased with government funds from the Great Exhibition and subsequent international exhibitions, or assembled for the use of the Government Schools of Design. Unlike the British Museum and the National Gallery, the V&A (as the Museum is routinely called) was, until 1983, under the direct control of a government department, initially the Board of Education, and at least in its first half-century, the Museum formed an integral part of a wider system of national art education.

The Victoria and Albert Museum also differs from its sister institutions in the nature of its collections, primarily composed of the applied or decorative arts. Among the earliest institutions to be devoted to this category of material, the V&A served as a model for similar museums throughout Europe, North America, and India, and its collections are the most extensive of all applied arts museums. Like those of both the British Museum and the National Gallery, the V&A's collections are international in scope, while also containing major British works-in the V&A's case, the world's foremost holdings of British silver, ceramics, textiles, and furniture. Although the V&A collections include more paintings than the National Gallery and cover some areas that are also represented at the British Museum, they differ markedly from those collections precisely because of the V&A's primary focus on the applied arts.1 The V&A's collections, however, are not comprehensive and do not consist solely of works classified as applied arts. Though at first sight the collections as a whole are paradigmatic of a museum of the applied arts, they have a rich ambiguity that merits detailed investigation. Which categories of work are included, and which are excluded, is a significant issue; the Museum's contents are less systematic and coherent than might be assumed. A Grand Design therefore sets out not only to present a selection of remarkable works from the V&A's collections, but also to examine the artistic, social, political, and individual forces involved in the formation of the collections, along with the ways in which they have been redefined and used over the century and a half since the Museum's founding. This is not a straightforward narrative. Each section of A Grand Design includes objects acquired at different times and deals with a cluster of issues that have relevance in any consideration of the Museum's ongoing purposes and uses. Texts about individual objects document the circumstances leading to, and the thinking that informed, the acquisition of an object, as well as the various meanings that objects have been given by virtue of their subsequent display and publication.

Throughout A Grand Design, several histories are intertwined. One concerns the formation of the collections, focusing on an investigation of the sources of particular works, the reasons for acquiring them, and the ways in which acquisitions came about-through a combination of considered policy, chance availability, and the personal tastes and motivations of curators and donors. A second history relates to the periodic reinterpretation of objects and their ongoing life within the Museum.2 One means of assessing changed interpretations of objects and styles over time is by examining the history of displays, as represented in surviving photographs and guidebooks. Museums present an array of objects in diverse displays intended both to educate and impress the viewer-the notion of spectacle as a means of gripping the imagination of the museum visitor grew in part out of the nineteenth-century international exhibitions. But the Museum also functions as a three-dimensional archive that preserves history, documents the passage of time, and serves as a resource for research and publication. Changing attitudes toward individual artworks, shifting notions as to which periods and categories of material are considered most significant, and a constant reformulation of what is considered worthy of inclusion in the canon can be discerned in these different modes of presentation.

Yet another history-about viewing the collections-is narrated in A Grand Design, and it is perhaps the most difficult to document or conceptualize. While guidebooks may suggest what the visitor should look at, and even the route that he or she should follow around the building, the trajectory that any one visitor might follow-and the meanings that this single individual might read into the objects encountered along the way-will only rarely coincide with the strategic thinking of the Museum's planners. How a visitor interacts with artworks and their settings is determined by personal needs, associations, biases, and fantasies rather than by institutional recommendations. In considering this history-that of response to, and reception of, the collections-the issue is not with the Museum as defined by its official aims and aspirations, but with how it is reconstituted in the individual imagination. Inevitably elusive and infinitely various, this history can be suggested only between the lines. All of these various histories of the Museum are interwoven throughout A Grand Design.

The notion of addressing the Victoria and Albert Museum's history and the formation and continual reinterpretation of its collections was conceived and developed just as the history of museums in general began to attract unprecedented attention.3 A Grand Design draws on a rapidly growing literature about museums as institutions and about the history of collecting.4 One strand within this literature has been concerned with the histories of individual museums. The emphasis of most of these studies has been antiquarian, documenting in rich and telling detail the sources, formation, and growth of collections, as well as the institutional structures that govern them and the buildings that house them. Among such publications, usually written by curators of particular museums, are accounts of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.5 Many recent exhibitions have also focused on the histories of collections in particular institutions, including those of the Princeton Art Museum, and of the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum. A major show at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris examined the development of French museums in the nineteenth century.6

Another strand in the literature examines a variety of institutions and collecting practices in terms of their uses as instruments of ideology, the systems of knowledge underlying their classificatory schemes, and the issues of representation involved in their strategies of display.7 These critiques of the museum, largely by academics working outside museums, have provided a valuable theoretical framework in which questions about the histories of individual institutions can be addressed. While often referring to evidence about specific cases, they nonetheless neither set out to provide a sustained and detailed analysis of single institutions, nor to follow the ways in which these issues are worked and reworked by such institutions over the course of their histories. A Grand Design attempts, in a modest and necessarily limited way, to make use of these methods of inquiry by considering the formation and reconfigurations of one major institution's collections in terms of how a museum represents the past and its own and other cultures.

A Grand Design presents, from different viewpoints, a composite and fragmentary history of the V&A's collections, documenting their formation and uses, while raising issues relevant to the Museum's role as a public institution. One of the most sensitive of these issues centers on the dichotomy between stated aims and what is achieved, between the aspirational and the contingent. Another involves the tension between, on the one hand, Museum policy about acquisition and interpretation-as this has been formulated over time to reflect political or national considerations-and, on the other, the particular influence of individuals, whether administrators, curators, or donors. Notable is the relationship between the parts of the collections assembled by purchase with government funds and those substantial groups of material given by private collectors-the Jones, Ionides, Salting, Schreiber, and Sheepshanks bequests being perhaps the most notable examples.

Also surfacing at many points is uncertainty as to whether the collections should be sweepingly international (as the early claims about the V&A's supposedly encyclopedic aims suggested) or give particular prominence to British material. The development of this schism would seem to be connected with the Museum's growing role in articulating national identity at a time when Britain's imperial powers were beginning to wane. Indeed, the Museum's identity as an institution inextricably linked with the structures of imperialism underlies both approaches to its collecting and The V&A's Glass Gallery, c.1972the interpretation of the collections once they were assembled. This is most clearly evident in the central, but problematic, position of the Indian collection; the very specific attitudes taken toward collecting the arts of China and Japan; and the almost complete absence of African artifacts, which were seen as constituting ethnography rather than art and design. But such imperialist assumptions may also be glimpsed in how the V&A's displays have so often aspired to present an overarching survey of the applied arts. This imperial basis of the collections not only is an issue lodged in the Museum's past but also has vital implications for the way the institution is perceived in its postcolonial present and future.

Such tensions and dilemmas are discernible throughout the V&A's history and make up the agenda of the continuing debate over what this Museum-perhaps, indeed, what museums in general-are for. Nowhere is this more strikingly evident than in the arguments concerning what the V&A's collections should include and what might constitute a canon of the applied arts. The notion of a canon of 'masterpieces' consisting of great works by major painters and sculptors is a familiar one. Despite a growing awareness that such canons are not absolute but are, rather, subject to historical change and sociopolitical influence, most viewers almost certainly accept the presence of such 'masterpieces' in art museums as entirely natural.

In the case of the applied arts, however, it is much more problematic to determine what constitutes a masterpiece and whether it is appropriate for museum display. In part, the problem arises from the question of authorship. Unlike most paintings and sculptures-associated with the name of an artist (and sometimes a very famous name)-many objects of applied art are of unknown origin as to maker. These 'useful arts' are often attributed to 'anonymous' or 'unknown' makers or, if to a specific maker, to someone whose name is relatively unfamiliar. Compounding a certain skepticism about the value of 'nameless' works is the prominence of the function of the applied art object. Even if a painting of a saint originally from a Baroque altarpiece was created specifically for purposes of religious devotion, once it has been removed from its context and placed in a museum, it is seen as a work of art, not as an expression of church dogma designed to function in a particular setting. Most ceramics or furniture, on the other hand, prompt questions about what they were for and how they were used; in other words, their function rather than their artistic qualities or historical interest is placed in the foreground. This very ambiguity that underlies how such objects are presented and viewed in museums can lead to a new awareness of the museum itself on the part of the visitor. Usually unconnected with a familiar name and lacking the aura associated with the nonfunctional artwork, objects of applied art on display in museums have the potential to alert the visitor to the artificiality, subjectivity, and seeming arbitrariness of the institutions in which they are placed, as well as to the conventions of representation these institutions employ.

The ambiguity provoked by placing on display-out of reach or locked away in glass cases-objects fundamentally intended to be used, sat upon, and handled, presents a unique challenge to the interpretation of not only the applied arts objects themselves but also the museums that house them. As the largest of all museums of the applied arts and the model for so many other museums, the Victoria and Albert Museum is the ideal subject for critical analysis. A Grand Design not only documents the life of a major museum but also raises important questions about how museums represent the past through the formation and interpretation of their collections.

Footnotes
1.
For one view of the relationship between the V&A and other national museums in
London, see the discussion in the V&A’s 1908 Report of the Committee on Re-
arrangement.
2.
Baker, 1996a.
3.
The V&A has itself contributed to this study, notably through Physick, 1982; and the
research of Charles Gibbs-Smith, one outcome of which was a display about the
Museum’s history mounted in the 1950s.
4.
For discussions of some of this literature, see Pomian, 1993; Herklotz, 1994; Gordon,
1995; and Gaskell, 1995.
5.
MacGregor, 1983; and Stafski, 1978. Other important studies have included McClellan,
1994; and a number of discussions of the Berlin museums, including Gaehtgens, 1992,
and Joachimides, 1995.
6.
Georgel, 1994; and Griffiths, 1996.
7.
Significant contributions, among others, include Pearce, 1992; and Pointon, 1994. The
current interest in these issues is registered by the space given last year to an extensive series of articles on “the problematics of collecting and display” in the Art Bulletin 77 (1995). Especially telling articles were written by Vishakha Desai and Donald Preziosi, among others. A further significant response to recent critiques of the museum is Conforti, 1992.