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The Fall of a Great Museum

To someone who has directed museums the press controversy over the Victoria and Albert Museum in London must appear ill-focused and uninformed. “The Victoria and Albert tries to catch up,” proclaims The New York Times, with a tight-lipped photograph of the new director, Mrs. Esteve-Coll. “Culture clash in South Kensington,” reports the Financial Times. “Blowing the dust off the V&A,” says another paper, under four unflattering drawings of Sir Roy Strong, the former director; Mrs. Esteve-Coll, the “present director and opponent of the old order”; Lord Armstrong, the newly appointed chairman of trustees; and Mrs. Thatcher. Since it is generally felt that the controversy has serious implications not only for a once great national institution, but for museums in the United States as well, it may be useful to give some account of the museum and its history, of the problems that confront it, and of the reasons why the staff restructuring imposed upon it will imperil its future usefulness.

The history of the museum goes back to 1852, when a Museum of Ornamental Art was opened at Marlborough House. It was intended to be of use to manufacturers and artisans, and it resulted from the application to problems of industrial design of the eclectic theory that was common in fine arts at the time, which held that the arts of all periods should be made available for study and imitation. The motive behind the museum was commercial, but the curator—his name was J.C. Robinson—was from the first determined that it should contain works bought for intrinsic quality, however inapplicable they might be to industry. At the time the models that sculptors made before undertaking their final work were thought to have more use for schools of design than finished sculptures, and they were among the means by which Robinson infiltrated Italian sculpture into the museum.

The catalyst was the purchase in 1854 of the Gherardini collection of wax sketch-models. It had been offered to the Tuscan government, which thought the price too high, and the French government, which also refused to purchase it. The models were therefore transferred to London, and were installed for a month at Marlborough House

with a view to eliciting from the public and the artists of this country such an expression of opinion as to the value and authenticity of the models, as will justify the purchase or the rejection of the collection by Her Majesty’s Government.

Providentially the collection was bought; it included a real model by Michelangelo and those models which were not by Michelangelo have proved, in our own day, to include a high proportion of the surviving models by Giovanni Bologna. There followed, in 1858, the triumphant purchase of the Gigli-Campana collection, which brought to the museum most of its incomparable series of Donatellos and Luca della Robbias and a host of other important sculptures. The purchase was made with the support of Gladstone, and was the taking-off point for the finest collection of Italian sculpture in any museum outside Italy.

Many of the museum’s most splendid medieval objects were also secured by Robinson at this early time. Posthumously deep gratitude is due to him for his achievement, but that was not the official reaction at the time. The more great works of art arrived at the museum, the more evident did it become that there was conflict between his view of the role of what had by then become the South Kensington Museum and that of Sir Henry Cole, who was in overall charge. Throughout the 1860s Robinson’s purchasing powers were circumscribed, and thereafter matters went from bad to worse. Finally in 1867 the authorities abolished his post. But two years after his dismissal the museum paradoxically acquired the greatest works of art of all, when the Raphael tapestry cartoons were deposited on loan by Queen Victoria. Their significance for industry was nil, but they had an impact on public taste comparable to that of the Elgin marbles a generation earlier.

It is hard to imagine what manufacturers and artisans can conceivably have made of the Renaissance metalwork and Hispano-Moresque dishes shown at Marlborough House, even if we assume, as we are bound to do, that Victorian minds were more selective, more critical, and in sharper focus than our own. But when in 1867 the museum was transferred to a new site at South Kensington some degree of order was introduced into the display. For that and the whole development of the South Kensington scheme we have to thank that inspired administrator Sir Henry Cole. Visitors to the new museum must have been more conscious of that than we are now when Cole’s achievement is, as it were, masked by the façade designed by Sir Aston Webb in 1909.

The construction of the present buildings illustrates very clearly the forces through which the institution has evolved. The first attempt by Aston Webb to combine the buildings put up in the 1860s within a new building was not particularly enterprising, but by the time that his project was carried out a sense of history had supervened. The laying of the foundation stone in 1899 was one of Queen Victoria’s last public appearances, and in the building as it was executed provision was made for a whole series of sculptures that gave it the character of a great national monument. As you walk along the Cromwell Road, the lantern, in the form of an imperial crown, comes into view, and with it the statue of Fame set on the top. Below, in tabernacles, are figures of Sculpture and Architecture, the two arts on which Fame was held to rest. In the middle of the lower part of the façade is a statue of Queen Victoria, and in the center of the doorway immediately beneath stands the Prince Consort, to whose initiative after the Great Exhibition the establishemt of the museum was so largely due.

Flanking Prince Albert are statues of Knowledge on the right and Inspiration on the left, and above them are spandrel reliefs showing the poles between which art could oscillate—above Inspiration, Beauty, and above Knowledge, Truth. Immediately over the doorway is a quotation from Reynolds’s Discourses: “The excellence of every art consists in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.” It relates to the fine not the applied arts, and so does the rest of the façade, for along the front run statues of British sculptors, painters, and architects; the statues of craftsmen are relegated to the relative obscurity of the Exhibition Road.

Within the building, for better or worse, generations of purists have been at work. The early decoration was conceived as a kind of gloss on the works that were exhibited. The collection of ceramics was housed in a gallery plastered with enameled terracotta, and the early medieval objects were shown beneath a mosaic of the Prince Consort, on a bridge which was known as the Prince Consort’s Gallery. No museum can allow itself the luxury of an archaeological approach toward its own galleries, and for that reason almost nothing of the South Court, the main decorative project of the late 1860s, is visible. It was planned as a sort of pantheon, with mosaic portraits of men connected with the arts (most of them were presidents of the Board of Trade), and mosaic figures of artists.

The whole project was masterminded by Sir Henry Cole. It culminated in two frescoes at the ends of the court by Lord Leighton, The Industrial Arts applied to War and The Industrial Arts applied to Peace, one set in Italy and the other in Greece. In the arch above are frescoes executed, with Leighton’s approval, in the 1890s, by W.E.F. Britten, which mark the close of a long erratic search for some means of investing High Renaissance iconography with contemporary significance. There, Britten tells us, we shall find Plutus, the little god of wealth, playing at the side of Irene or Industry, and next comes Fortuna, directing the disposal of wealth, without the conventional blindfold that would have impeded her capacity to do so in a rational way. I believe this is the only painted exposition of the economic theory of laissez faire. It would be easy nowadays to ridicule the program, but as director I derived much satisfaction from these proofs of how confident and how convinced, how extroverted and how optimistic my predecessors were.

As with all such institutions the present of the Victoria and Albert has been to some extent conditioned by its past. It was intended as a popular educational museum serving a large public, and it has preserved this character. But throughout the years, in response to public need, its galleries were progressively transformed. In 1909 it was subdivided into curatorial departments organized on the basis of technique. This had many practical advantages—its acquisition policy became more ambitious and the individual departments, developing, as was natural, at different speeds, gained acceptance as world authorities in their respective fields—but it had one major disadvantage, that the greatest works of art were segregated in departmental galleries.

This segregation remained in force when I first joined the staff in 1938. After the war, however, the system of display was revolutionized by a now forgotten director of near genius, Leigh Ashton, who believed that the language spoken by works of art was universal and self-explanatory. The collections were therefore reorganized and were distributed among primary galleries, where objects of the same date and style in any medium were juxtaposed, and departmental collections of secondary works, which remained in the control of their parent departments. A great deal of the detail of this arrangement would now seem old-fashioned or extemporized (since money even then was short), but when the galleries were completed they provided what must have been incomparably the finest visual introduction to postclassical culture in any museum in the world.

Ashton was succeeded by an excellent director in Trenchard Cox, from whom I personally learned much, and in 1967 I in turn became director. What I took over was a well-run, enthusiastic, flexible staff, and a system of display that could be refined and sometimes radically changed but was manifestly one of great public appeal. I had the benefit as minister of arts of Jennie Lee, the only principled occupant of this difficult post, and of warm support from the Department of Education. A quantity of very successful exhibitions were held, and the attendance figures rose. The education service was developed in a generally satisfactory direction, and the Circulation Department (now abolished) fulfilled an invaluable role in rectifying the imbalance between the works of art available in London and the resources of regional galleries. There were workmanlike plans for the development of a theater museum, which would have run at a profit not a loss, and a serious attempt was being made to strengthen the very weak collections of twentieth-century artifacts throughout the museum. One of my last acquisitions was a room by Frank Lloyd Wright complete with furniture, which was presented with great generosity by Edgar Kaufmann. I erected it with some pride, but it was disassembled by my successor, and has since been stored.

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