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…

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