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, a history of the Victorian and Albert museum
 
home
view all pictures from the book
search info
The introduction to the book

Alan Borg
Director
Victoria and Albert Museum

A Grand Design reveals the way in which a great museum came into being and has grown over almost one hundred and fifty years. It is a fascinating story, full of extraordinary characters, great works of art, many triumphs, and some disasters. No institution stands still, and the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum reflects the ways in which society, taste, perception, and scholarship have changed over the years.

That process of growth has not stopped, and indeed this book and the exhibition it celebrates represent just another stage in the Museum’s continuing evolution. It is an important stage, however, marking a revival of the V&A’s links with some of the great museums of North America. The V&A was influential from its earliest days in promoting the idea that museums are engines of social improvement and education. This was a theme taken up by many American museums, which often looked to the V&A as a model. But this Museum’s role as a spiritual and intellectual example for other cultural institutions to follow was to diminish in the twentieth century, and today we are perhaps less well known outside the United Kingdom than we were a hundred years ago. A Grand Design will help to change that perception and is therefore especially welcome.

All exhibitions are collaborative ventures, both within and without the museums that present them. In this case a very large number of the staff of the V&A have been involved—far too many to name individually, but I am grateful to them all. (I should like to pay particular tribute, however, to Daniel McGrath, who took many of the photographs for this book—including those for the cover—and who was, tragically, killed in a car accident in December 1996.) I think all those who have worked so hard on this project have succeeded in giving a fair portrayal of a great British institution, but that is really for our viewers and readers to judge. A Grand Design was first proposed by Arnold Lehman, Director of the BMA, to my predecessor, Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, and the project was already far advanced when I came to the V&A as director. The preparation of the exhibition has been for us a useful and enjoyable exercise, not least because of the close cooperation with our colleagues at The Baltimore Museum of Art, especially Arnold Lehman and Brenda Richardson, the Deputy Director. Seeing it to fruition has taught me a lot about this Museum and given me a much better appreciation of its amazing character. I believe A Grand Design will delight all who see the exhibition or read this book.

Preface to the Book

Arnold L. Lehman, Director
Brenda Richardson, Deputy Director for Art
The Baltimore Museum of Art

Fig.2. The Dome“The choice of a point of view is the initial act of a culture. . . . To define is to exclude and negate,” wrote Ortega y Gasset (The Modern Theme, 1923). England is a nation grounded in tradition, a nation that has defined itself within the boundaries of class, hierarchy, and territory. Inspired by the model of international industrial displays at the Great Exhibition in 1851, the institution that has since 1899 been called the Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures, an institution dedicated to presenting the applied, or decorative, arts. The new museum’s mission was spelled out by Henry Cole—the entrepreneur, educator, and civil servant whose initiative and convictions were in large part responsible for the stunningly successful 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition—in his first annual report to the Board of Trade:

[A] Museum presents probably the only effectual means of educating the adult, who cannot be expected to go to school like the youth, and the necessity for teaching the grown man is quite as great as that of training the child. By proper arrangements a Museum may be made in the highest degree instructional. If it be connected with lectures, and means are taken to point out its uses and applications, it becomes elevated from being a mere unintelligible lounge for idlers into an impressive schoolroom for everyone.1

Throughout the intervening century and a half, the V&A (as the Museum came to be called) has struggled with the viability and relevance of its founding mission in relation to its ever-evolving social and cultural context; new technologies; constantly changing audience demographics; iconic collections—now numbering more than 4 million objects spanning two thousand years of art in virtually every medium—that make the V&A one of the greatest and most comprehensive treasure houses in the world; and, not least, the influence of the Museum’s own administrative and curatorial staff over the years as it brought to the institution divergent and often conflicting attitudes, expertise, and intellectual points of view. Commenting in the 1990s on Henry Cole’s 1850s vision, former Museum director Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll wrote that

it is important to be aware, in understanding the history of the Museum, that its educational and didactic purposes preceded the acquisition of its collections.

It was to be a distinctive type of Museum, oriented towards the understanding and interpretation of the principles of design in manufactured goods, educational in the ways that the collections were displayed, and to be enjoyed by as broad an audience as possible.

Since the Museum was established, it has pursued these ideals, not always with equal success. . .2

The Victoria and Albert Museum has been forced to struggle not simply with its frequently splintered vision of itself, but to delineate its place within a national culture and, more specifically, within a sociopolitical system that often seemed to allow little flexibility or innovation. Art and its institutional place in public life were carefully prescribed. For decades in England objects of historical and archaeological significance were designated for the collections of the British Museum, as were objects defined as ethnography; paintings considered to be of universal art historical significance were designated for the collections of the National Gallery; modern English paintings and sculptures were directed to the Tate Gallery, initially administratively part of the National Gallery; and objects of applied art went to the V&A. When occasional messy “overlaps” or uncertain definitions were acknowledged, groups of objects would be divided among two or more institutions.

In Britain, “Art” and “Science” manifested themselves in distinct fashion that rarely caused confusion among the civil servants who administered decisions about proper disposition of objects. However, until very recent times, art has been much more narrowly defined than science. Even as England brought home the riches of empire, it discriminated among the spoils available for looting from its colonies. England, reflecting culturally instilled biases, actively collected “refined” Western-style Indian sculpture, for example, while leaving behind the “much maligned monsters” (to borrow scholar Partha Mitter’s memorable book title on this subject) of more characteristic Indian art in the Hindu style. Similarly, England saw the material culture of its African colonies as “primitive”—objects of historical or ethnographic interest and thus “Science” rather than “Art”—and consigned those pieces to the British Museum or the Museum of Mankind. It must be reported that in this latter regard American and European museum experience is not unlike that of the V&A and other English art museums. In the United States, too, African artifacts were most often considered within the context of anthropology and accordingly consigned to ethnographic museums. It was not until the 1920s that American art museums incorporated what was then called “primitive art” into their collections as well as their exhibition programs (The Brooklyn Museum of Art became the first in 1923 when it purchased 1,500 works of African art for its collection and put many of them on public display). The difference is that the V&A, even through the twentieth century, never diverged from its prescribed course relative to African art, despite Britain’s colonization of much of that continent.

Ironically, certain key aspects of the V&A’s character derived more directly from practices typical of museums of history and anthropology than from those of art museums. Founding director Henry Cole adopted education as the overriding mission of the new South Kensington Museum and to the present day the V&A features typological displays adapted from ethnographic paradigms. In an art museum, “even the most disparate and foreign objects become contemporary and accessible”; in an ethnographic or “natural history museum, on the other hand, all is culture-bound, and the subjective words ‘quality’ and ‘beauty’ never grace a label. The displays are left the dull task of providing context. . . .”3

It is all the more stunning, then, that out of this culture of certainty sprung a museum that has had a greater and more profound impact on museums worldwide than any other in history. At its founding in the mid-nineteenth century, the South Kensington Museum departed radically from everything museums were supposed to be in that era. In doing so, the V&A introduced the concept that museums ought to operate in the public interest and, further, promulgated the conviction that objects within the museum should—and could—convey educational benefit, enjoyment for the populace, and even (by displaying the best industrial design as exemplars of the genre) the means to economic reward. This then revolutionary mission is today shared by nearly every museum in North America and, indeed, by most major museums throughout the world.

The Baltimore Museum of Art was incorporated in 1914 on essentially the same founding principles as those that define “the South Kensington ideal.” The BMA’s articles of incorporation cite the new museum’s five official purposes:

(a) The establishing and maintaining . . . of a Museum and Library of Art. (b) The encouraging and promoting of the study and enjoyment of the fine and industrial arts. (c) The application of art to manufactures and to practical life. (d) The furnishing of instruction to the public in regard to the foregoing subjects by means of exhibitions and lectures. . . . (e) The receiving of gifts or loans of objects of Art . . . to be used for the foregoing purposes. . . .

Though stopping short of citing the Victoria and Albert Museum in its charter—as several other American museum charters in fact do—it is clear that the South Kensington approach was known to and appreciated by the BMA’s incorporators. Like those who organized new art museums from Boston to Bombay, Baltimore’s founders too looked to the Victoria and Albert Museum as a lodestar of educational innovation and enlightened public interest.

This is a moment in the history of museums when our most fundamental purposes as public institutions are being questioned and occasionally undermined. In the last decade of the twentieth century certain of our greatest museums have seen their missions and integrity compromised by extra-institutional sociopolitical agendas and “community standards.” It has become nearly impossible for mainstream American museums, at least, to take on historically sensitive subjects, whether black slavery, gay activism, Japanese internment, or U.S. military initiatives. David Lowenthal, the distinguished English scholar of social sciences, recently commented on cultural critic Louis Menand’s representation that “When [subcultures] acquire official patronage, they’re on the way to the museum.” Lowenthal promptly responded in a published letter, “But museums are not morgues; as the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay fracas showed, they are prime foci of partisan action.”4

It is precisely this reality of the museum as an arena of partisan action that A Grand Design addresses. The selection, presentation, and publication of art and artifacts by museums are expressions of specific points of view. Each such expression represents a choice, and each point of view defines one thing while it excludes and negates something (or everything) else. This reality is not commonly understood by the museum-going public, which generally sees the museum’s choices as something approaching acts of God or, at the least, as driven by absolute and objective standards.

To make this reality of museums as fields of “partisan action” tangible to a broad audience—to bring the issues into the public arena for thoughtful consideration and lively dialogue—requires an institutional subject prepared to be dissected, with each of its choices, whether historical or contemporary, put under a magnifier. The Victoria and Albert Museum is an ideal subject: home to great collections acquired, for diverse and ever-evolving reasons, over a century and a half; vast archives documenting specific actions over that same period; a commitment to intellectual rigor; a staff eager to advance understanding of the V&A’s history as a means to better understand the meanings, influence, and implications of museums worldwide; and a willingness to engage in candid dialogue about the full spectrum of the Museum’s actions, whether those actions in retrospect appear to have been foresighted or retrograde, informed or uninformed, benign or malevolent.

Aware of the seminal role played by the V&A in the formation and ideology of museums of fine and applied arts internationally—along with the knowledge that this unique and complex institution had built over its century and a half one of the most exceptional collections in the world—it seemed not just worthwhile but potentially important to present and publish a broad selection from the V&A’s collections that might serve to crystallize the central issues that face all art museums today. Such a presentation would also acquaint a much enlarged public in North America about this great museum, its influential history, and its dazzling collections.

The format for A Grand Design took shape only over a period of years, ultimately assuming a thematic structure designed to reveal layers of collection development from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Each of six sections focuses on one thematic aspect of choices made by this uniquely complex Museum: (1)“The Great Exhibition and the Industrial Ideal” addresses the idealistic goals of the V&A’s founders—most especially the Museum’s first director Henry Cole—to present industrial arts as a means of improving national design standards among manufacturers and working classes; (2) “Teaching by Example” talks about the fundamental—and then revolutionary—concept promulgated at the South Kensington Museum that art objects can be used to educate a broad public; (3) “An Encyclopedia of Treasures” focuses on the era when the museum’s profoundly influential first curator, Superintendent of Art Collections John Charles Robinson, brought great treasures of Italian Renaissance art into the Museum’s collections, and the implications of the “encyclopedic schoolroom” becoming a “treasure house”; (4) “The Engagement with the Orient” candidly scrutinizes the politics of empire, colonialism, and racism as it impacted decision making at the Museum; (5) “The Idea of ‘Englishness’” looks at the V&A’s renewed consideration in the early twentieth century of national heritage and the importance of collecting major works of British art; and (6) “Collecting the Twentieth Century” addresses the delicate matter of engaging with contemporary artists and craftspeople and collecting the art of our own time (art whose significance and merit are as yet untested by the passage of years).

The Victoria and Albert Museum is called “the V&A” or “the Museum” throughout A Grand Design even when the nomenclature is anachronistic. The Museum was founded in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures (at Marlborough House), renamed the Museum of Ornamental Art in 1853, opened as the South Kensington Museum in 1857, and renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum on 17 May 1899 by Queen Victoria (b. 1819; reigned 1837–1901) in her last official public appearance. A tribute to her beloved consort Prince Albert (1819–1861), the name has led to confusion about the Museum’s identity among the public, many of whom are said to visit the V&A in the belief that it houses the personal collection of Victoria and Albert. In fact, the V&A’s collections of more than 4 million objects are drawn from two thousand years of cultural history, and include ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, furniture and woodwork, sculpture, textiles, paintings, drawings, prints, and rare and illustrated books. The Baltimore Museum of Art is extremely proud to join in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum to present A Grand Design in North America and, by the year 2000, in the United Kingdom as well.

Footnotes
1.
V&A, 1991, p6.
2.
Ibid.
3.
Lyle Rexer,”Art for Science’s Sake Is a Whole Other Story,” The New York Times, 21 July 1996, p28.
4.
David Lowenthal, letter published in “The Mail,” The New Yorker, 17 February 1997, p10.