• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Object Lessons

A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum 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); the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (J

an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 12,, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Malcolm Baker, by Brenda Richardson
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 ceasing to turn its back on the city, and inviting local politicians to assist at the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon. Main entrances, he demonstrated (neatly turning the symbolism on its head), are “about access.” Grand architecture is allowed once again to be grand. Enthusiastic staff members in Boston point you in the direction of the Koch Gallery, which is now conceived as a princely collection in the seventeenth-century style, with oil paintings hung in three tiers, and the different European schools harmoniously mixed.

A similar swaggering look, and a double or triple hang, has been returned to the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille. Here the architects, Jean-Marc Ibos and Myrto Vitart, were able, in one operation (it took six years of closure), to strip the whole of the old building of its false ceilings and other accretions, remove the administration offices to a new block, extend the basement, almost double the exhibition space, and reassert all the values of the old building in a modern context. Or, to be truthful, with a touch of irony here and there—arches picked out with fairy lights, a couple of large, assertive, multicolored chandeliers. One may argue with some of the details of the design. But the principle of the approach, that of playing to the strengths of the original building, is wonderfully vindicated.

It is in the context of such restorations that one turns to the new silver gallery at the V&A, which occupies the premises of the original ceramics gallery. Here the tiled pillars have been where possible restored, the decorated ceiling uncovered, and there are photographs to show what the space looked like at previous stages of its history—precisely what Pope-Hennessy meant by an “archaeological approach” to the gallery, but one which is bound to delight the taste of a public which, for the last couple of decades, has been carrying out precisely this sort of renovation in Victorian and Edwardian houses—uncovering and restoring what the real estate agents approvingly call “original features.”

Tastes change. The American museums which copied the example of the South Kensington (as the V&A was originally known) all kicked off with large collections of plaster casts, partly because these were a conventional educational resource of the time and partly because there was some pessimism about the extent to which it would be possible to obtain original works of art from Europe. Here is an extract from the proposal by Charles Callahan Perkins, in 1869, for the establishment in Boston of “a Museum of Art of the character of that at South Kensington”:

Original works of art being out of our reach on account of their rarity and excessive costliness, and satisfactory copies of paintings being nearly as rare and costly as originals, we are limited to the acquisition of reproductions in plaster and other analogous materials of architectural fragments, statues, coins, gems, medals, and inscriptions, and of photographs of drawings by the old masters, which are nearly as perfect as the originals from which they are taken, and quite as useful for our purposes.2

Nor did this pessimism fade over the next decade. In 1880 we find Martin Brimmer, president of the Boston Museum’s board of trustees, arguing that at the rate that works of art by the “older painters and sculptors” were being gathered into the public collections of Europe, they would, in another generation, be almost unobtainable.

One could imagine that, as the pessimism subsided and the museums did indeed fill up with original works of art, those plaster casts became associated with leaner times. They would become an embarrassment (“This is what we thought of as sophistication in those days”) or an unwelcome reminder (“This was all we could afford when we were starting out”). And just as in England, after the Second World War, nobody wanted to eat another rabbit stew, or a fish called snoek, so the last thing you would want in an American museum would be a vista of plaster casts of the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, or the Dancing Faun—replicas which look so splendid in the early photographs of the Art Palace in Cincinnati.3

But there must have been more to it than that. For while all but one of the cast collections in the States were dismantled during this century (the exception being Pittsburgh), the same animus against casts grew up in Europe. Casts were deceptive, inauthentic, had no “truth to the material” (although nothing, of course, displays the virtues of plaster as a material so much as the plaster cast), were worse than photographs. Perhaps it was their role in education that came to be detested. In the first part of this century, one spent the first year at the Slade School at Oxford drawing nothing but plaster casts in the Antique Room. By the Fifties, this rule had been relaxed, and the new student could work both from the casts and from live models. Within a few years, however, the Antique Room had been dismantled and its casts dispersed or destroyed.

At the V&A, where the casts are numerous and occupy two large courts, covetous eyes were often turned in their direction, the last time around 1976 when Roy Strong wanted to convert the space they were occupying. The casts survived only by the skin of their teeth, partly because it could now be argued that they recorded monuments that had been destroyed by war, and also that a cast such as that of Trajan’s Column was a record of the column as it was in the 1870s (before Roman pollution had taken its toll).

For a while, the cast courts remained closed for restoration. When they reopened in the early Eighties, they proved popular at once, for their grandeur and comprehensiveness. But over the last decade staff at the museum have noticed more and more students coming to draw from the casts. And the educational literature put out by the museum encourages both drawing and writing about the plaster casts, proposing storylines for schoolchildren to develop such as: “You have never seen an emperor so your mother has taken you to see the procession of Trajan and his army. Describe your day out.” Or, taking the point of view of the underdog: “You are a Dacian child. Describe your feelings as the man who conquered your people makes a visit.” Or:

…Show pupils the engraving of the original Trajan’s column in Rome and tell them that they have been sent by the Museum to make a plaster copy for the collection. How will they do it? They will have to work out exactly how to cast it and how to display it in the Museum.4

A somewhat unrealistic assignment, the reader may feel, but evidence of the return to favor of the plaster cast.


Of course one goes to a museum “to look at the building”—how could it be otherwise? The first time I saw the interior of the Gare d’Orsay, it was home to the theater company of Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud. An ingenious wooden capsule auditorium skulked in the gloom of the old railway station, which seemed just a ghost of a building. The second time, the building itself was the hero of the day. Every level had a use, and could be explored. That simultaneous experience of art and engineering seemed entirely appropriate to the collections the Musée d’Orsay had brought together. Later, with the renovation of the Louvre, the Cour Marly and the Cour Puget (previously unremarked ministerial courtyards) became home to an outstanding collection of French open-air sculpture. Going to see the building was a great part of the thrill.

To take another familiar example, if in New York you go up that grand main staircase at the Met, and turn left along the corridor in which they display drawings and photographs, you come to a window on your right, from which you can look down into the Petrie Court, where European sculpture is displayed. People often pause at this window, I have noticed, to take in the elegant coolness of the view. It is a garden, a winter garden, created by the glazing in of a space between two imposing exterior walls. At the far end, behind a wall of glass, is a view of Central Park. Carpeaux’s Count Ugolino starves to death beside the refreshment stand. Bourdelle’s Herakles the Archer (a fluke success by an unbearable sculptor) takes aim in his improbable way, with his right knee on the ground and his left foot pushing against a rocky outcrop. Most of the sculptures are on this monumental scale, such as would fit in a garden or park. Some are remarkable, some distinctly less so, but they all help each other out. There is greenery and there are park benches, places to sit away from the movement of the crowds. And all this is an architectural achievement, appropriate for the interpretation and enjoyment of the art.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, April 27, 1989.

  2. 2

    Walter Muir Whitehill, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 10.

  3. 3

    Unsigned, Art Palace of the West: A Centennial Tribute 1881-1981 (Cincinnati Art Museum, 1981).

  4. 4

    Sculpture at the V&A: A Handbook for Teachers (V&A Education, 1996), pp. 30-31.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print