Object Lessons

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

an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 12, 1997-January 18, 1998. Following its presentation in Baltimore, A Grand Design will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (February 25-May 17, 1998)
Abrams/Baltimore Museum of Art, 431 pp., $60.00

Photography: An Independent Art: Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum 1839-1996

by Mark Haworth-Booth
Princeton University Press, 208 pp., $39.50


In 1989 John Pope-Hennessy wrote an article for these pages entitled “The Fall of a Great Museum,” in which, as a former director, he deplored recent developments at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.1 It was a memorable attack, full of anger and contempt—an attack which still rankles in certain quarters. It was part of a general outcry which brought about the quiet reversal of some proposed policies, but which failed to secure its chief object, the ousting of the then-director, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll. Rereading Pope-Hennessy’s article recently, I was struck less by the broad thrust of the argument than by several assumptions on which it rested, all of which seem to indicate a shift of taste and intellectual approach since the days of his directorship.

Pope-Hennessy was dismissive of a master plan which had been drawn up, under which the museum would gradually be returned to its original look—doorways or views which had been blocked off would be opened up again, modernist cladding and false ceilings removed, the circulation of the visitors around the sequences of rooms would be made more logical, and so forth. “This was foolish,” Pope-Hennessy wrote, “because visitors come to a museum to look at works of art, not at the buildings in which they are housed.” And again: “No museum can allow itself the luxury of an archaeological approach towards its own galleries….” And finally: “The function of museums is to educate, and at the Victoria and Albert this is achieved through its collections, not through its architecture.”

One might ask why, if the architecture of the V&A was a matter of indifference to the visitor, it had been found necessary over the years to cover so much of it up. Why should it have been thought necessary to chisel the Minton tiles off the walls and prise them off the floor of the ceramics gallery if they were doing no harm? The answer is that they were indeed thought to be doing harm. People looked at them and shuddered. They were oppressive, institutional, “like a public lavatory.” The architecture was the enemy of the art it housed.

Why (to take a parallel example) should Thomas Hoving have wanted, during his tenure at the Metropolitan Museum, to tear out the grand staircase? Not, I suppose, because he was indifferent to it, but because he hated it—thought it put people off, gave “the wrong signals.” It was explained to me recently that there was a phase, throughout the museum world, in which all the old main entrances were thought to look wrong and off-putting, and so new extensions were built (“usually by I.M. Pei”) to provide, among other benefits, a supposedly friendlier and less awesome approach. But the signs are that we may have weathered this trend.

When Malcolm Rogers took over the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (one of several American clones of the V&A), he reopened the old main entrance on Huntington Avenue, making the act symbolic of the museum’s…

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