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Where industry met art: the V&A's legacy to American culture
>> A brief history of the modern museum carries Elizabeth Helsinger to South Kensington.

What is a museum but a distillation of culture? The classical and indigenous arts that were long the cornerstones of well-respected permanent collections now compete with traveling retrospectives of Norman Rockwell, Matisse, and Picasso, while Star Wars, Armani, and Cartier exhibitions draw record crowds. Suburbanites in bright-white sneakers follow the same audio tours as black-clad artsy types. Museum cafés serve white-bean bruschetta and truffled tomato soup alongside good old-fashioned sweets and teas. A postcard hunt in the gift shop completes the experience.

For the studious eye, a stroll through a museum reveals as much about the museum itself and the audiences for whom the exhibitions are organized as can be learned from the objects on display. That was the consensus reached by several faculty members during the mid-January "Museum Culture" Chicago Weekend sponsored by the Alumni Association and the Graham School of General Studies.

Elizabeth Helsinger, the John Matthews Manley distinguished service professor of English, art history, and humanities, began the program with a historical view of these now-familiar phenomena. The seeds, she says, were planted in 1857 London, when the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington first opened its doors.

"The V&A was unlike other museums of its time because it was very much a public place from the start, a modern, monstrous offspring of industry and art. It was founded to reach out to a new public, and its purpose was not to preserve heritage or incite wonder, but to educate people in the practical, industrial, and decorative arts," says Helsinger. "It is a museum of things-things that are one step away from their roles as commodities."

The "things" that became the cornerstone of the V&A's permanent collection-hydraulic presses, steam engines, ironwork-were originally displayed at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, the first industrial world fair. When the items were moved to their permanent home in South Kensington, they became part of a government-run teaching campus aimed at improving "taste and knowledge" among Helsinger's "new public"-the working classes whose skills and pocketbooks would ensure the continued success of British manufactures. In time, the V&A's collection of decorative arts grew to include porcelain, furniture, metalwork, jewelry, textiles, ceramics, and glass.

PHOTO:  English professor and Smart Museum board member Elizabeth Helsinger (shown in Smart's lobby) contemplates the ambiguous relationship between commerce and art.It was decorative "things" and the people to whom they were marketed that first sparked her interest in the V&A. Helsinger, who has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and joined Chicago's faculty in 1972, has long explored British art and literature and the ways in which the British represented themselves in the 19th century. Co-author of the three-volume The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883 (Chicago, 1989) and author of Rural Scenes and National Representation, Britain 1815-1850 (Princeton, 1997), she is writing a book on pre-Raphaelite poetry, painting, and design. Her research has led her from writer and critic John Ruskin to Gabriel Dante Rossetti, co-founder of the pre-Raphaelite movement and a friend of Ruskin's, to the art of bookmaking, and to William Morris, the poet and craftsman who designed books, furniture, fabrics, stained glass, and wallpaper. It was Morris's designs, which would show up at the V&A in the 1860s, that took her to South Kensington and, ultimately, to this museum culture lecture at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago.

Helsinger's tour of the V&A told much about British culture and how the social classes defined themselves in the 19th century. From the start, she says, the V&A bucked the rules set by high-brow art museums such as the Louvre and Britain's National Gallery. (Before the V&A brought museums to the common man, she says, "there had been the concern that the bad air-the effluvia-from unwashed bodies could damage paintings in the National Gallery.") Rather than arranging items by schools of art or chronological development of style, the V&A's exhibits were "classified by material and, within materials, the techniques used to transform them." One popular exhibit hall was the "animal parts and food museum," says Helsinger, which displayed skins and meat by what they could be made into.

During the 1860s the V&A embraced marketing, with publications and advertisements targeted to specific audiences. Helsinger showed a slide of a split-page ad depicting two Sunday afternoon options for a working-class family: either a few too many pints at the pub for mum and dad with little Johnny nowhere in sight, or a stroll through the V&A for the whole family. The first limited-run blockbuster exhibitions also were held at the V&A. The most popular, Helsinger says, was a collection of wedding gifts presented to one of Queen Victoria's children. When indoor lighting became available, the V&A moved quickly, allowing the working classes to visit during evening hours.

The V&A's efforts were wildly successful: 500,000 visitors came to the museum in 1867, more than 1 million in 1869. By then, the museum's holdings had grown to include medieval and antiquarian art, overflow from the National Gallery, and substantial private gifts of paintings and other fine arts-items that attracted visitors from all classes of British society.

Then the museum's management came up with yet another idea: offering refreshment for the crowds. But while the "jostling of the classes" in exhibition halls may have been acceptable, she says, knocking elbows with a working family in a restaurant might drive away the V&A's new-found audiences. How to invent a dining place to accommodate mixed company?

The V&A settled upon a series of three dining rooms, opened in 1865-68. The first, a grill room tiled in cobalt blue and warmed by potbellied stoves, appealed to the more boisterous lower classes. A tearoom, with burnished browns and ornately framed mirrors, was designed with middle-class patrons in mind. The formal dining room's restful green hues and molded-plaster walls were for upper-class patrons. Each room featured the exclusive designs of prominent British firms, the green dining room sponsored by the Morris Company-the same Morris in Helsinger's research-famed for its wallpaper prints. In a nearby shop, any patron could purchase trinkets or postcards.

As always, she says, the V&A strode a fine line between commerce and art-a line its American offspring continue to straddle. It was the V&A's strong educational rhetoric, she says, that caught the attention of the pragmatic democrats across the pond. By the end of the 19th century, Americans were holding their own industrial expositions and piecing together museum collections with funding from industrial philanthropists. When it came time to seek a model for their own museums, the Americans chose the V&A, with its mission first and foremost to educate the public. The V&A's commercial bent seemed to come with the package. Today the V&A's influence on American museum-going has become virtually unavoidable.

"The question of whether this exhibition of Armani designs or that Star Wars exhibition is a betrayal of the separation between commerce and art is not new," says Helsinger. "It was there from the first."-S.A.S.


  APRIL 2001

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