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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.