A flock of exotic birds in South Kensington

A Grand Design - Vision and Accident
May 19, 2000

The Victoria and Albert Museum originated in the closing years of the Georgian era with the objective of educating British artisans and consumers in the exemplary skills and tastes of their fore-fathers. Inhabiting many acres of South Kensington and subsidiary institutions, the museum comprises an unrivalled and encyclopedic collection of treasures, mainly in the field of European and Asian applied arts and design. A Grand Design is the accompanying catalogue to a recent exhibition that attempted to digest this rather daunting combination of history and objects for the benefit of audiences at leading museums in the United States, before returning home last autumn. Vision and Accident , on the other hand, is a detailed, illustrated chronicle of the chief players, ideas and circumstances that shaped this rather indistinct but affectionately regarded constellation within the British cultural establishment. Neither is introspective hagiograpy, both being perceptive self-analyses that show how a public institution can risk sinking from intellectual significance under the material success of its founding mission.

The V&A began as a relatively radical enterprise, couched in the language of utilitarianism and free trade, to grant access for all to the finest art and manufacturing. Put crudely, reformers saw that many of the fruits of civilisation remained the possession of an antiquarian aristocracy, while the workers who had once made them now sat at the machine turning out trashy gewgaws to decorate the cluttered homes of a rising middle class. Initiative came in the form of a parliamentary select committee set up in 1835 to inquire into the effect that a self-serving Royal Academy was perceived to have upon wider artistic education. A government School of Design was subsequently founded in the RA's former premises at Somerset House, where students were obliged to copy from fragments of suitable ornament. Following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the restless and inspirational civil servant who had organised the event, Henry Cole, took the school and the department of practical art that oversaw it to Marlborough House in Pall Mall, full of his patron Prince Albert's hope to unite art and science in the service of industry. At Marlborough House, the school's teaching collection was merged with leftovers from Crystal Palace and exhibited to the public as the Museum of Manufactures. Acquiring a genius of a curator in John Charles Robinson, it was then renamed the Museum of Ornamental Art.

Through his work as an art historian and as a roving dealer happy to sift through the spoils of continental revolution, Robinson built this rather forlorn and haphazard assemblage into a canonical reference collection of the decorative arts. His displays imported much of the hoary medievalism and romantically evocative rhetoric of the pioneering French public museums, notably Alexandre du Sommerard's collection in the Musee du Cluny in Paris. In 1855, the ensemble found a permanent home as the nucleus of an emerging interdisciplinary and exhibitionary campus, the "Albertopolis" in Kensington. It became known as the South Kensington Museum, with visitors rising to more than a million a year. The difficult Robinson fell out with Cole and was sacked, and the museum fell back into a regime that tended to neglect scholarship in favour of administrative competence.

South Kensington provided a model for the founding of decorative and industrial art museums from Brno to Berlin, with the museum itself dividing and expanding to form the National Art Library, the Royal College of Art and the Science Museum. Responding to the popularisation of antique collecting among the middle classes, it soon retreated into the role of haughty connoisseur rather than an energetic drawing master. Not until 1945 did a new director, Leigh Ashton, resurrect some of Robinson's notions by reassembling the finest exhibits, previously segregated entirely according to materials and techniques, into period settings. This was half a century after period rooms had become the norm in Zeitgeist-minded Germany.

At the V&A, the didactic insistence on good and bad taste was never lost to historical relativism, however. Roy Strong became the first director seriously to introduce contemporary art and design in the 1970s, also redeveloping formal links with the RCA through a joint MA course in the history of design in 1984. The students and staff of the course brought an invigorating but sometimes unwelcome breeze of Marxism, social history, psychoanalysis, anthropology and feminism in the attempt to understand the historical functions and meanings of objects.

Luxuriously produced, A Grand Design is, in the words of the PR blurb, a "stunning visual history", with beautifully printed photographs that have a gratuity and verve worthy of National Geographic . The exhibition thoughtfully and chastely selected a mixture of show-pieces and curiosities to illustrate the V&A's evolving didactic aims and methods and its aesthetic richness. It identified a branch of Victorian spectacle - the desire for luscious surfaces, substances and manufacturing virtuosity - with an arresting sense of cultural specificity without lapsing into patronising clichés. A Grand Design may be viewed as something of a rehabilitation of Victorian eclecticism, incorporating Julia Margaret Cameron's haunting photographs and a range of cameo shell engravings. Its handling of the more contemporary field seems a little less substantial. This may be because it is easier to criticise a curator's choices of present-day objects (a leopard-skin 1964 Roberts radio; the oft-displayed platform shoes by Vivienne Westwood) when their social meanings are clearer, the desire to be seen to be cool more plain.

Editors Brenda Richardson and Malcolm Baker have assembled a catalogue of lucid, informative and incisive essays that address the role of the museum as a cultural and educational apparatus. The contribution by Partha Mitter,for example, confronts the way that the V&A's large Indian collection - acquired from the East India Company in 1874 - was used to construct a racist account of artistic hierarchies. This, despite the fact that leading design educators at the time admired oriental "principles" of flat decoration (or the fact that racism was not a current term). Charles Saumarez Smith's essay on the idea of Englishness and national heritage describes the contravening curatorial approaches and passions that could coexist in an institution so large and possessing so many pockets. As Anthony Burton says, A Grand Design is evidence that "the curatorial mind is now able to hold in balance alternate patterns of significance in relation to the objects it studies". Such an approach may merely accord with the current pluralist establishment orthodoxy, seen also in the V&A's current marketing strategy inviting people to "find themselves" among its diverse pleasures.

Partly in the wake of Michel Foucault, seemingly benevolent and enlightened public institutions, including museums, have been unmasked as sophisticated branches of the bourgeois thought police. Burton considers such critiques in his superbly comprehensive Vision and Accident , but wisely does not give them much room, since his technique of mining, deploying and explaining significant facts in a narrative that refuses to be skimmed is more effective. Burton is a quietly observant and trenchant analyst: suggestive rather than dogmatic throughout, inviting the reader to realise that the so-called manufacturing classes (always a rather romanticised formation) are being spoken for, but not heard. He also debunks the myth that free admission at all times was an article of faith for the Victorians at South Kensington.

Like A Grand Design , Burton's book extends its appeal beyond V&A aficionados and initiates: both studies are redoubtable grist to the historiography of art and cultural histories of the British establishment. True to its genre, however, Burton's is the more serious and important of the two. His thesis that powerful ideas ran up against the debris of circumstance is not only correct for the V&A, but a lesson for those writing about other institutions. The journey to this conclusion is challenging and enjoyable at many levels, as the reader encounters vivid, convincing and historically contextualised portraits of some of the extraordinary characters involved. Burton has a realistic eye for the combination of structures and fortune behind such scandals as attended Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, the V&A's first female director, who took the chalice of Thatcherite cuts in the late 1980s. He shows the general within the parochial, right up to the present, and shows a possible future under the vagaries of the National Lottery and the genuflections of new Labour.

As befits a collection, however, there is little to conclude from the V&A,or hope for, except that it exists. It is the legacy of accumulated history, not cast by instantaneous logic. It is therefore more deeply "relevant" to a consumer society than can be encapsulated by any trendy mission statement. As these books show, the challenge has always been to interpret, augment and communicate the V&A's many things: how and for whom has been the question. A Grand Design and Vision and Accident are both clear and clever, and will appeal to academics, students and the general reader. They are signs of the intellectual health of some branches of the museum world, whose focus on one task at a time higher education would do well to emulate.

Marius Kwint lectures in the history of art at the University of Oxford.

A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Editor - Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson
ISBN - 1 85177 308 8
Publisher - V&A Publications
Price - £50.00
Pages - 431

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