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A Grand Design

By Ellen Marsh | HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 4

In her last official public appearance, on May 17, 1899, Queen Victoria laid the cornerstone for a new building in South Kensington, London, and decreed that it would be called the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was not a new museum, however: The building would be part of an institution that had been founded in 1852, and that had been known as the South Kensington Museum since 1857. The queen was extremely proud of this museum, whose collections reflected Great Britain's power and achievements during her long reign. As Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, explains, "In her undying love for Albert, she wanted to associate their names with a great museum and conversely, to honor the museum with the royal names."

This October a major exhibition, "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," will open at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the city's bicentennial.

From 1998 to 1999 the exhibition will travel to four other North American venues before returning to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A). "A Grand Design" has been ten years in the planning and is the largest exhibition the Baltimore Museum of Art has ever had. In fact, Lehman thinks it may be one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever held in the United States -- as it would have to be in order to reflect, even in a limited way, the incredibly rich holdings of the V & A. Of the V & A's more than four and a half million objects, the curators selected 250 choice and representative works of art which will tell the history of a museum: how it came into being, how it was affected by changes in society and the personalities of its officials and curators, and how the museum has presented objects to the public over the years.

The collections of the V & A span two thousand years of history and are housed in a vast assemblage of buildings -- the corridors alone go on for more than seven miles. It is the largest and most influential museum of the decorative arts in the world, yet many people have never heard of it, or think that it is a museum devoted to artifacts of the queen and her consort. The breadth and depth of the collections are mind-boggling. Lehman notes that most museums have compartmentalized themselves and fill specific niches. "But," he says, "the V & A has multitudes of niches and fills all of them grandly."

The V & A began in 1852 as an outgrowth of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851, which was held in London in the Crystal Palace, a huge glass and cast- iron building that looked something like an immense greenhouse. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was not only changing the way products were made but society itself. There were extremes of wealth and poverty, but also a rapidly growing middle class. Although Great Britain was at the height of its power and affluence, many people (including Prince Albert) were concerned that it was not economically competitive with other industrialized countries, especially France, in the production of the luxury goods that the new middle class was purchasing with such enthusiasm. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was created to display the finest example of manufactured goods from all parts of the world and to inspire British craftsmen and manufacturers to improve their products.

The exposition was a huge success, both in terms of attendance and money. The organizers used some of the profits to purchase a large tract of land in South Kensington, on part of which the V & A now stands, and to buy some of the objects from the Crystal Palace for a new museum that would be devoted to the applied arts and education. Henry Cole, one of the chief organizers of the Great Exhibition and head of the new museum from 1853 to 1873, described its mission: "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 everybody."

In order to reach a wide audience, the South Kensington Museum stayed open at night -- it was the first museum to use artificial lighting -- and had a permanenet restaurant on the premises, another first. A prominent and popular part of the collection was plaster casts of architectural elements and other works of art. "This was the way most people saw great art, " explains Lehman. "They couldn't all do the Grand Tour." He notes that a cast of Michelangelo's Madonna and Child from Bruges will be in "A Grand Design." "At one point we wanted to bring the V & A's cast of David by Michelangelo, but it was too large. We decided to bring the fig leaf instead. This was one huge fig leaf, you understand." Like all the objects in the exhibition, the fig leaf has a story: In 1857, the grand duke of Tuscany sent an unexpected gift to Queen Victoria: an eighteen-foot-high cast of David, as a peace offering for the duke's refusal to permit the export of a Ghirlandajo painting to the National Gallery. When the queen paid a visit to the South Kensington Museum to see her gift, she was shocked by its nudity. The museum quickly commissioned a fig leaf. "It was in its own case behind the figure of David and was brought out when female members of the royal family visited," Lehman laughs. "It certainly shows the decorum of the period."

South Kensington was quick to use the new medium of photography, both as an art form in itself and in place of works of art which it could not afford. Sometimes photographs were used in conjunction with casts. For instance, the museum commissioned huge casts of the west portico of the Santiago cathedral in Spain, which were displayed together with photographs of the cathedral made by the museum's photographer, Thurston Thompson. The museum frequently circulated casts, photographs, and objects in the collection to provincial institutions and art colleges.

From the beginning, the South Kensington Museum collected not only objects of contemporary manufacture but also examples of applied art from all historical periods. When John Charles Robinson became superintendent of art collections in 1853, he accelerated this process, acquiring a splendid collection of art of the Italian Renaissance and the European Middle Ages. Robinson viewed museums as treasure houses, although Lehman notes that the treasures were chosen only from selected parts of world where "high art" was produced. African and South American art were left to the anthropological collections of the British Museum.

The V & A did not confine itself to Western art, however. Mughal painting, Buddhist sculpture, Persian miniatures, Chinese jade, and Japanese lacquer, among others, reflected the extent of the Empire and the concerns of the British mercantile establishment. "Great Britain was at its height in the second half of the nineteenth century," says Lehman. "There was wealth available from the government and private individuals that allowed the museum to collect works of art in a manner we simply don't have today."

As the Empire slipped into its long twilight toward the end of the nineteenth century, Britain turned back to its own heritage. There was a revulsion against mass produced, highly ornamented products and a return, in the Arts and Crafts movement, to handmade, simply designed pottery, textiles, and furniture. The museum from the beginning had included British paintings and British-made objects, but these were a relatively small part of its holdings. By the turn of the century there was a new, sentimental interest in the life of old England, which, like the Empire, was fading away. As the museum devoted an increasing amount of space to English glassware, pottery, and furniture, the V & A became, in effect, the English national museum. (Wales, Scotland, and Ireland had their own national museums.)

With the end of World War II, the V & A once again redefined its mission and began a determined effort to commission and collect contemporary objects. Actually, this was a return to its roots and the principles of its first director, Henry Cole, to educate craftspeople and the public in the appreciation and creation of good design. Acquisition of contemporary works had virtually stopped in 1901, when a gift of French art nouveau furniture caused a furor among critics and the public, who said the designs were decadent and alien. In response, the V & A decided to accquire mostly works of art that were fifty or more years old and had presumably stood the test of time. Since 1945, the V & A has added such contemporary ojects as radios, shoes, and fashions -- even a plastic minidress from the 1960s.

"Most of the public think that God or some all-knowing being put objects in a museum, and have little idea of how they are chosen," says Lehman. "A Grand Design" will enlighten them. Lehman sums up: "This exhibition is a candid examination of a great institution."

About the Author

Ellen Marsh is a freelance writer in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Funding Information

The exhibition is supported by $200,000 in outright and matching funds from the Division of Public Programs.


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

  • Baltimore Museum of Art from October 12, 1997 to January 18, 1998;
  • Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, February 25, 1998-May 17, 1998;
  • Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto June 20, 1998-September 13, 1998;
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, October 18, 1998-January 10, 1999;
  • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, February 13, 1999-May 9, 1999;
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, October 1999-January 2000.

Joel Myerson is Carolina Research Professor of American Literature at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Daniel Shealy is Associate Dean of the Graduate School, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.