Victorian Culture and the Museum:Before and After the White Cube
Among the great art museums of the Anglo-Saxon world, a majority are creations of the Victorian era. The British Museum alone provides a glimpse of pre-industrial, pre-Victorian museology, a blend of Enlightenment taxonomies, royal and private collections and cabinets of curiosities traditions which still both distinguish and hinder the institution beneath the spectacular computer-designed roof of its Millennium Court. At the other end of the spectrum, Tate Modern might wish to be an authentically (post-?) modern phenomenon, but it ultimately owes its existence to a benefaction of Victorian subject paintings. The major London art museums the National Gallery (which, though founded in 1824, opened in the present building in Trafalgar Square on 9 April 1838), the Victoria and Albert Museum (known as the South Kensington Museum from 1857 to 1899) and the Tate Gallery on Millbank (founded 1897) are emblematic, respectively, of early-, mid- and late-Victorian manifestations of the museological project for the fine and decorative arts. Housed within splendid Victorian buildings, they stand in complex and sometimes tormented relation to the Victorian epistemologies which produced them. These museums, so omnipresent as to have become naturalized into our cultural landscape, have framed the ways in which we view the world through its material remains and the way we narrate histories for art. As Donald Preziosi noted in 1996,
We live today in a profoundly museological world a world that in no small measure is itself a product and effect of some two centuries of museological meditations. Museums are one of the central sites at which modernity has been generated, (en)gendered, and sustained over that time. They are so natural, ubiquitous and indispensable to us today that it takes considerable effort to think ourselves back to a world without them, and to think through the shadows cast by the massive and dazzling familiarity of this uncanny social technology.1 [End Page 133]
The museums of Victorian Britain can be seen in Preziosi's terms as paradigmatic sites of the production of modernity a paradox which locates the modern precisely in the act of preserving and presenting the material culture of the past. Of course, to the Victorian imagination such there was no paradox in looking to the past and future in a single move: the Pre-Raphaelites, after all, created an art of radical modernity from a historicist, revivalist project.
If the museum is an essentially Victorian phenomenon, it has, in turn, provided a dominant, and often tendentious, framework through which Victorian art is displayed, and Victorian culture is viewed and assessed today. The strategies of self-promotion, display and exhibition adopted by these institutions often cling to a now threadbare Modernist aesthetic and ideology which moves them to deny their links to the Victorian past. In doing so, they continue to cast the Victorian era as modernity's other whether through hostility to the opulence and eclecticism of Victorian art, or through a nostalgic, reactionary view of the Victorian era which likewise positions it as non-modern. The contested status of Victorian art both within the canon of (modern) British art and, more generally, in the history of Western art, has, especially since the Second World War and the rising influence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, fostered in many of these institutions an ambivalent and even hostile relationship to the art of the era which created them and towards the buildings in which they are housed. In the 1930s, MoMA positioned its hallmark display techniques sparse hanging of often unframed paintings against brilliant white walls in explicit opposition to the eclecticism and visual overkill of 'cluttered' Victorian display techniques. This induced a mood of anti-Victorian self-hatred among British institutions such as the V&A, which in 1949 obscured the magnificent decorations of the South Court, including frescoes by Frederic Leighton, filling in Francis Fowke's elegant arcades with a shoddy asbestos-ridden white cube. Once a ghastly restaurant, this still provides the museum's unhappy venue for temporary exhibitions.
This essay broaches two separate but related questions: firstly, what was distinctive about Victorian museum culture, and secondly, how do museums represent the Victorians, and in particular Victorian art, to us today? I will suggest that, just as some of the most original Victorian contributions to the development of the museum took place in peripheral settings, so, today, metropolitan institutions engaged in narrating broader histories of art and culture have struggled to produce adequate representations of the Victorian period, lagging behind regional museums. Despite contemporary unease with both the material and [End Page 134] visual culture of Victorian Britain, and with the era's highly visible museological legacy, I will argue that the Victorian museum project has much to teach today's curators and museum directors. This essay, then, argues for a reversal of widely held assumptions about centre and periphery, and about the effortless superiority of Modernist museum practice.
Power and the Imagination: Two Museums Founded in 1876
It is the limit-cases, strange effects at the margins, which most clearly define what Victorian culture wanted of the museum, and best epitomize its salient features. Two examples from well beyond the familiar turf of the metropolitan museum-goer seem to me emblematic of the strength of the Victorian museum, the first in northern India, and the second in the outskirts of a Yorkshire city. Despite fundamental differences, they share a defining referent: each responded directly to the precedent of the South Kensington Museum. The subject of a large historiography, this most strikingly original museological manifestation of the Victorian era, was created by Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave from a pot-pourri of influences redolent of modernity international exhibitions, the department store, liberal economics, technical design education and utilitarian reform ideology yet it was also informed also by the more traditional curatorial and aesthetic motivations of John Charles Robinson and his successors.2
The influence of South Kensington could be felt in all over the world. In 1876, the Prince of Wales, touring Rajasthan, laid the foundation stone for the Albert Hall in Jaipur, an institution which would contain ceremonial spaces, a school for the industrial arts and a museum. Paid for by the Maharajah of Jaipur, the museum opened in temporary rooms in 1881 and was finally inaugurated in 1887.The museum was intended as a miniature version of the institutions at South Kensington, with a spectacular, didactic collection of Industrial Arts dominating the main floor, and Educational and Natural History collections in the upper galleries. It was believed that the display of a profusion of objects of high quality (mainly Indian in origin) would promote the regeneration of local crafts and industries, leading to higher productivity. More broadly it was assumed (though not explicitly stated) that the museum a place of beauty and repose, but one carefully regulated would inculcate in visitors a willing conformity to participation in the great design of empire. A handbook, written in 1895 by its curator Thomas Holbein Hendley describes the Jaipur Museum's content and installation with exemplary clarity. The 'uncanny social technology' of the [End Page 135] museum, in this formulation, was an active agent of social change and economic development, as well as a demonstration of the beneficence of the ruling establishment, local and imperial.
The erection of a striking and aesthetically powerful building was just as important in 1876 as it has remained. Just as hardly a single significant art museum in the USA today is without a major expansion programme, in the hands of a celebrity architect, so the British Raj excelled itself in the production of magnificent official buildings. Like Frank Lloyd Wright's and Frank Gehry's Guggenheim buildings, the Albert Hall at Jaipur, a masterpiece of the indo-saracenic style designed by Swinton Jacob, formed a powerful visual statement, an assimilation of diverse indigenous elements into a hybrid western style. In Jaipur, as at the South Kensington Museum, but unlike modernist and post-modernist museum structures, the museum building was also an exemplary and didactic text, charged with meaning, inscribed with significant iconography and exemplifying applied art techniques whose revival the authorities wished to promote.3 In the museum's ante-room were (and still are) large frescoes, constituting a series of portraits of the Rulers of Rajasthan since 1503 culminating with Sir Sawai Madho Singh, the thirty-fifth and present maharaja, patron of the museum. Also prominent is a large copy in fresco, made by Rajasthani court artists, of a work by Giotto, based on an Arundel Society chromolithograph, a striking example of colonial hybridity.
The museum was carefully installed using the latest techniques to maximize its didactic and pedagogical effectiveness. After passing through a turnstile, the visitor entered 'The Metal Room'. The objects 'which require most minute examination' were displayed in the central cases, while others 'whose interest consists chiefly in their form or place in the classification, or in which the details of arrangement are not very remarkable' were banished to shelves at the side of the room. 'Small hands (coloured red) have also been placed on the cases and frames to point out the order in which the objects should be inspected, and the labels give all information regarding the articles which is not found in the handbook, and which is really necessary to understanding them.'4 The hierarchy of objects was also clearly indicated: 'Anything of special value is distinguished by a red star.'
While this museum, whose mission was one of social and economic activism, certainly presented objects according to a didactic framework based on colonial ideology and epistemology, it also offered a space for the enjoyment of works of art and design to a broad audience, much of which would have had no such experience before. The subjective response of visitors is, as ever, largely undocumented, but the museum [End Page 136] must have been a source of wonder: a site for the free play of the imagination, for aesthetic pleasure and for individual response; and thus for possible resistance to dominant ideologies.
A more explicitly defiant form of museology is apparent in my second example. While the Prince of Wales was away on his Indian tour, John Ruskin opened a tiny museum for Sheffield artisans, installed in a small farmhouse in Walkley, on the outskirts of the city. In Fors Clavigera, Ruskin professed himself to be
ready to arrange such a museum for their artizans as they have not yet dreamed of; not dazzling nor overwhelming, but comfortable, useful, and in such sort as smoke-cumbered skies may admit beautiful; though not, on the outside, otherwise decorated than with plain and easily-worked slabs of Derbyshire marble, with which I shall face the walls, making the interior a working man's Bodleian Library ...5
The museum at Walkley formed a diametrical opposite to the South Kensington Museum's gospel of promoting industrial development through the improvement of design, a mission in which Ruskin could see only 'abortion and falsehood'.6 Instead, Ruskin wished to de-industrialize his wished-for visitors, the Sheffield ironworkers to return them, through aesthetic contemplation, to what he considered a Gothic condition of direct response to nature and art. He provided the museum with exquisite objects from his personal collections illuminated manuscripts and natural history samples, minerals, precious stones and watercolours by Turner and by Ruskin himself. The collection, unified by Ruskin's own taste and consonant with the arguments of his published works, lacked the taxonomic and totalizing ambitions of its official counterparts, the universal survey museums of the Victorian state, and offered scattered epiphanies rather than the sustained exposition of a historical narrative or an ideological position. The aim was to teach to teach aesthetics, ethics, even politics through the study and enjoyment of beautiful objects, both man-made and natural. But where South Kensington was large, impersonal, bureaucratic, systematic and liberal in its economic and political instincts, and drew attention to itself using all the techniques of the modern media, Ruskin's museum was small, intensely personal, radical-Tory in its politics, and happy to remain obscure, and provincial. South Kensington claimed to be a world in miniature, offering complete series, grand taxonomies, spectacular vistas. Ruskin's museum offered individual people small insights that revealed aesthetic, ethical and spiritual truths. It is perhaps to be regretted that today's highly commercialized museums share more with Henry Cole's vision than with Ruskin's. [End Page 137]
As with its counterpart in Jaipur, Ruskin's target audience was marked out by its alterity from the organizers two groups separated by a gulf of caste and race in Rajasthan, and one of class in Yorkshire. It would be easy it is, indeed, irresistible to see these two museums as both relating to a project of social control. In Jaipur the museum participates in a regime of colonial assimilation of key subaltern social groups. In Sheffield the artisan is seduced into the acceptance of social inequality by the baubles of high culture, retreating from the true path of radical or revolutionary action; in India, the colonized craftsman backs away from nationalism after accepting state education and patronage. Yet such a reading perhaps both overestimates the repressive power and underestimates the radical potential of the museum, missing the possibility that visitors can, and do, read, and look, against the grain.
One of the staples of the current literature on museum studies is Tony Bennett's article 'The Exhibitionary Complex', which applies Michel Foucault's arguments about the operation of institutions of state dedicated to the modification and control of behaviour the prison, the lunatic asylum to the museum. Bennett's work is the most cogent formulation of what one might call a museology of paranoia the notion that every aspect of the museum's operation represents a sinister and calculated manifestation of the state's power to discipline and punish the individual. The connections between the museum and the architecture of state repression cannot be denied; Rafael Denis has, for example, revealed the dense web of connections between the military and the South Kensington Museum.7 But surely museums, so allusive and mediated in their effects, were never an effective method of social control, or even of ideological dissemination. Other, more direct forms of physical and ideological repression, through the legal and penal systems to military interventions; manipulation of food supply and housing; education in the classroom; and the mass spectacles of empire durbars and parades all exercised state power more effectively.
Through the presentation of historical and contemporary material culture, museums operated more subtly by conferring value on particular forms of fabricated object, by shaping the material traces of culture and history into coherent patterns. Perhaps the best riposte to Bennett's museology of paranoia is the note that anecdotal evidence, and a good deal of research from the new academic discipline of visitor studies, reveals that the responses of museum visitors to displays and exhibitions often radically differs from the stated aims of the curators. The museum, in other words, can be seen as a space of widely varied individual response even a site of intellectual anarchy where the careful regulation of the visitor's body and behaviour fails to result in the [End Page 138] transmission of coherent ideological positions from curator to viewer. Above all, the museum is a space for the play of the imagination, richly stimulated (in the Victorian case) by a panoply of objects, textures, colours and ideas. It may be that the purportedly radical and liberating Modernist museum, with its strict and repressive concentration on formal matters, its aggressively reductive architecture and garishly blank interior surfaces, delimits the emotional and aesthetic response of the viewer: the puritanical search for stylistic purity might be contrasted with the riotous visual and hermeneutic excesses of the supposedly puritanical Victorians.
Viewing Victorian Art Today
I want to shift focus now to the display of Victorian art today, which still takes place mainly in institutions created in the Victorian period. Indeed, to inscribe the geographical distribution of Victorian art in public collections on a map of Great Britain would be to chart, quite accurately, the distribution of capital and entrepreneurial activity in Britain during the late nineteenth century. London's collections at Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Holloway, and the Guildhall Art Gallery directly reflect the sources of Victorian metropolitan wealth. These museums have received significant academic treatment, and their histories are now familiar.8 The capital underlying the capital's collections derived from diverse regions of the world: horse jobbing for the Napoleonic wars (the Vernon collection at the Tate), Caribbean sugar plantations (Tate), wool exports from Leeds and global shipping (the Sheepshanks and Ionides collections at the V&A), patent medicines (Royal Holloway), and the financial sector based on world-wide investments (the Guildhall). But collectively greater riches in this field can be found in the industrial and commercial centres of northern Britain and the Midlands: Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham; Leeds, Newcastle and Glasgow. Even the smaller industrial cities Bristol, Bury, Bradford, Oldham can count their collections of Victorian art as being of national significance.
Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham certainly provide the most effective permanent displays of Victorian art in Britain today, with representative works of high quality intelligently displayed. In a highly original study, Amy Woodson-Boulton has chronicled the local decision-making processes which resulted in the museums of the Victorian industrial cities focusing on the acquisition contemporary British, rather than old master or contemporary foreign paintings. A range of reasons from the existence of a critical literature, to the ease of [End Page 139] demonstrating authenticity, and the popularity of works with new audiences for art contributed to this development.9
Its legacy can be seen, to take one example, in the recently re-opened Manchester Art Gallery.10 The main floor of the restored original Art Gallery building now presents a survey of mainly British art from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, in which the Pre-Raphaelites and major Victorian artists such as Leighton, Watts and Alfred Moore provide a climax. A single, densely hung gallery, with rich, though notably modern rather than historicizing, wall colours, gathers together many of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite paintings: Madox Brown's Work; Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd and The Shadow of Death and Millais's Autumn Leaves and Winter Fuel. A broad and elegant bridge leads from this room, across a lobby space, to the newly converted Athenaeum building, where the museum's holdings of twentieth century art are placed, nicely (if perhaps inadvertently) providing an architectural analogy for recent revisionist accounts of Pre-Raphaelitism as a proto-modern, even modernist, movement.11
At Manchester, the decorative and fine arts are woven into a seamless display, though the gallery has stepped back from Timothy Clifford's earlier installation which theatrically restaged a 'heritage' Victorian hang complete with pot plants and hangings.12 While the progression of the galleries is broadly chronological, each room also adopts a thematic approach featuring, for example, a particularly fine grouping of Victorian landscape paintings. Although the aesthetic impact of the gallery, and the historical narrative it presents, are impressive (with the exception of the inexplicably dreadful positioning of Millais's Autumn Leaves in a dark corner), the textual material fails to meet the same standard. Unfortunately, the Gallery's education-driven labeling is patchy, ranging from clear and informative to the needlessly matey and dumbed-down. Worst of all, the Gallery has employing a bizarre teleprompter-style typographical formula which produces each sentence as a paragraph in soundbite fashion, ironically rendering the labels more difficult to comprehend than their Victorian predecessors in Jaipur or Sheffield.
If the residue of Manchester's textile wealth can be seen on the walls of its galleries, Liverpool's industrial and trading histories are richly present in the Walker Art Gallery and, especially, the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight, an exercise in 1920s nostalgia for the Victorian and earlier periods situated at the heart of an ideal garden city created for the workers at the Lever Brothers' Sunlight Soap factory, whose distant bulk can be seen over the top of the picturesque dwellings. Recent refurbishments here, too, have seen the spectacular re-installation [End Page 140] of Victorian collections, with labeling which reflects the fundamental cataloguing work undertaken by the staff of what is now known as 'National Museums Liverpool.' It is little short of a triumph over circumstances that, throughout an era of sustained Government philistinism under Thatcher, Major and Blair, that major catalogues of the highest quality such as Edward Morris's Victorian and Edwardian Paintings have been produced.13 The labeling and interpretation in these galleries is more sedate and scholarly than in Manchester, but the language is clear and precise and accessible to most museum visitors.
If the regional museums present their publics with balanced, judicious and well-presented displays of Victorian art, the museum visitor in London is less well served. Visitors to Britain's National Gallery might well believe that Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), essentially a Romantic masterpiece, was the last work of British art to be painted in the nineteenth century, apart, perhaps from the odd Sargent. For although the collection of French art stretches to Bonnard and Vuillard, and even Picasso is represented in the collection, there is not a single work of Victorian art, as the term is generally understood, in the main picture-viewing spaces of the National Gallery. Although the Pre-Raphaelites, Whistler and Watts are strictly excluded from the collection (in contrast to the likes of Hogarth, Wright of Derby, Gainsborough and Reynolds, seen at their finest), there is one Victorian painting to be seen in the building, but only at risk of personal injury. High above the main staircase, on loan from the Royal Collection, can be seen Frederic Leighton's Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna of 1855. This superb processional painting which marks the meeting of British and German traditions, and which established Leighton as a history painter of major promise, is reduced in the National Gallery's hang to the status of decoration beyond the hushed, air-conditioned sanctum of the galleries, it hangs in a public space filled with noisy, milling tourists. Decorative, illustrative, kitsch (so this placing tells us) it is presented as 'not-art'.
Sir James Linton, President of the Royal Institution, argued in 1887 that the National Gallery should collect modern British art: 'How much more valuable and instructive would be the National Gallery if it were in every sense national; not alone 'national' because it is the property of the nation, but 'national' in its most useful sense? Amongst the gathered works within its walls we ought to be able to see all that is best of our own school, as well as of its great predecessors'.14 It was not a new idea; the Sheepshanks collection at South Kensington had been donated with exactly this intention, and that abortive National Gallery of British Art is commemorated today in a tiny, but potent display in the [End Page 141] British Galleries of the V&A. There is still a compelling case for a better representation of British painting from after the death of Turner in the Trafalgar Square galleries where much of it was first exhibited.
It was, of course, Sir Henry Tate's donation of paintings in 1897, after a long series of negotiations, which finally brought a National Gallery of British Art to light, though its mission was soon fudged by the addition of 'Modern Foreign' art. The Tate has been the central repository of British including Victorian art, and has mounted many significant exhibitions in the field, from Pre-Raphaelites (1984) and Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites (2000) to Exposed: The Victorian Nude (2001), with a Millais retrospective promised for 2007. Despite the institution's Victorian origins, and the fact that Tate's collection was entirely of contemporary (Victorian) art, the display of Victorian art in the permanent collections at Millbank has never been anything other than half-hearted. There were, however, two fine wood-panelled galleries in which large Victorian canvases such as Burne-Jones's King Copphetua and the Beggar Maid, and J.W. Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott found a permanent and a visually appropriate home. These galleries were demolished during the Centenary Development campaign during construction of the Linbury Galleries which opened in 2001.
With the founding of Tate Modern came the opportunity for a redisplay of the British collection at Millbank, fulfilling Henry Tate's original ambition. This took the form of a temporary thematic re-display, Re-Presenting Britain, a new departure in the display of British art and one that was shameful for its visual illiteracy, shoddy execution and its intellectual laziness.15 Paying lipservice to a Blairite agenda of accessibility, the display simply allowed an elite already familiar with the history of British art to enjoy a passing frisson by seeing familiar works jumbled up and rehung according to simplistic themes (William Powell Frith's Derby Day, for example, rubbed shoulders with Wyndham Lewis's Voriticist The Crowd, on the grounds that both contained many small figures). To widespread relief Re-Presenting Britain was replaced by Collections 2002-1500, a broadly chronological re-hang which included distinguished new displays of eighteenth-century, Romantic and twentieth-century British art. The Victorian period, however, was ill-served by displays which retained the anti-visual, thematic approach of Re-Presenting Britain, with portmanteau themes like 'Art and Society'. Paintings of radically differing genre, style and size were thrown together in a poorly-lit and badly configured simulacrum of an 'academy hang'. (Art on the Line, an exhibition curated by David Solkin at the Courtauld Institute demonstrated how effective this archaeological and recreative experiment can be if done seriously).16 The fact [End Page 142] that only the Victorian galleries received such dense hanging, and that the rest of the collection was installed according to the spare modernist aesthetic characteristic of the Tate under Nicholas Serota's directorship, made plain the alterity of Victorian art to the hierarchy of aesethetic values canonized by the Tate.17 At the time of writing, a new gallery installation curated by Alison Smith, drawing together an enterprising selection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, well-lit and interestingly juxtaposed, provides an indication that Victorian art at Millbank is slowly emerging from the gloom.
A fact with serious repercussions for the historiography, and market value, of Victorian art, is its absence from the major American collections. Despite the presence of small groups of Victorian paintings in Delaware, at the Yale Center for British Art and the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University, the fact remains that while the robber barons of the early twentieth century revered the aristocratic panache of Reynolds and Gainsborough, their tastes for near-contemporary painting were almost exclusively French. Nineteenth-century art and therefore modernity itself is held, in the American curatorial imagination as well as in the duller backwaters of the American academy, to be a wholly French phenomenon. This orthodoxy is so ingrained that, even when an institution does own major Victorian works, they rarely appear on public display The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, for example, holds Leighton's Lacrymae (1896) and Burne-Jones's Chant d'Amour (1868-77), neither of which has regularly appeared in the nineteenth-century galleries.
The status of Victorian decorative arts is subtly different. Pugin, de Morgan and Morris always hold court in the Metropolitan's decorative arts displays (an unconscious tribute, perhaps, to the South Kensington Museum's dominant influence in the Met's early years). Likewise, the Victoria and Albert Museum's British Galleries present a superbly sustained and brilliantly installed history of the decorative arts, material culture and patronage in the Victorian era, including a self-reflexive analysis of the museum's own role and history.
When the Museum of Modern Art reopened, to much fanfare, in 2004, the oldest object on view to a New York public eager for Picasso and Pollock was a Sussex chair, designed for Morris and Co. probably by Ford Madox Brown in the 1860s. This modest wooden object, simple in its geometry, appears in MoMA's Architecture and Design galleries as an unassuming starting point for the history of modern design, a prelude to the high achievements of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Austere, linear and functional, it emerges as an emblem of a bold, precocious modernity, deriving from the world's first industrial [End Page 143] nation in the years immediately after the Great Exhibition. Yet the unyielding glare of MoMA's white walls seems uncongenial to the Morris chair, whose cultural resonances are deeply troubling to an orthodox history of modernism. The chair insists that there is as much perhaps more to admire in the past as in the future, in the country as the city, in craft skill as in machine manufacture and that a modern art can, simultaneously, be eclectic and historically resonant; an art, in short, which draws on and parallels the function of the museum. It demands a richly textured, eclectic, visual context to release its full range of resonance, a chromatic rather than the ultimately banal relentlessness of a monochrome installation.
The fact that contemporary artists have become fascinated with the idea of the museum indicates a return, at some level, of a Victorian sensibility.18 While the white cube, as it should, persists at MoMA, other institutions are re-examining their Victorian architectural and aesthetic heritage, as the uncovering of Victorian decorative schemes at the British Museum and the National Gallery indicates. The Victoria and Albert Museum has announced an intention to restore the South Court to its former glory by dismantling the 1949 conversion, literally removing the white cube, an incubus which has obscured what is perhaps the finest of all Victorian museum interiors. But the challenge is not merely an archaeological one. Victorian museums provided vibrant social and cultural relevance, a strong didactic impulse, but also a sense of profusion and spectacle, of layering, mixing and juxtaposing images and meanings, which allowed the visitor's imagination free play. The Crystal Palace's cornucopia of objects makes modernists shudder, just as its building thrills them; but perhaps we should revise, even reverse, this assessment. As revisionist art history offers new perspectives on Victorian art, there are hints (more in regional than metropolitan centres) that newly creative, and not merely replicated, techniques of installation and interpretation are being applied to Victorian collections. It is only appropriate that our obsessively museological culture should embrace and celebrate that Victorian phenomenon which is the modern museum, and to recognize the ways that modernity itself is a museological project.
Tim Barringer has published widely on British art and visual culture, art and empire, and on American art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His books include Reading the Pre-Raphaelites (Yale University Press, 1999); American Sublime (with Andrew Wilton, Tate/Princeton, 2002) and Men at Work: Art and Labour in mid-Victorian Britain (Yale University Press/Paul Mellon Centre, 2005). He is editor of Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum (with Tom Flynn, Routledge, 1997) and (with Elizabeth Prettejohn) Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity (Yale University Press, 1998).
1. Donald Preziosi, 'Brain of the Earth's Body: Museums and the Framing of Modernity', from Paul Druro (ed.), The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays on the Boundary of the Artwork (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 97.
2. On the South Kensington Museum, see inter alia Brenda Richardson and Malcolm Baker (eds), A Grand Design (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1997). [End Page 144]
3. For a discussion of the South Kensington Museum building see Tim Barringer, 'Re-Presenting the Imperial Archive: South Kensington and its Museums', Journal of Victorian Culture 3:2 (Autumn 1998), 357-73.
4. Thomas Holbein Hendley, Handbook to the Jeypore Museum (Calcutta: Government of India, 1895), 7.
5. Fors Clavigera, E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 39: 397.
6. The Works of John Ruskin, 29: 154.
7. Tony Bennett, 'The Exhibitionary Complex', New Formations, 4: 7-102, revised and reprinted in Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 59-88. Rafael Cardoso Denis, 'The Brompton Barracks: War, Peace and the Rise of Victorian Art and Design Education', Journal of Design History 8:1 (1995), 11-25.
8. See, for example, Brandon Taylor, Art for the Nation: Exhibitions and the London Public, 1747-2001 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).
9. Amy Woodson-Boulton, 'Temples of Art in Cities of Industry: Municipal Art Museums in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, c.1870-1914', PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 2003. I am grateful to the author for sharing her work with me and for illuminating discussions on the subject.
10. For an introduction, see Michael Howard, Upclose: A Guide to Manchester Art Gallery (London: Scala, 2002). An earlier history of the collection can be found in A Century of Collecting, 1882-1982: A Guide to Manchester City Art Galleries (Manchester: Manchester City Art Galleries, 1983).
11. See Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate, 2000).
12. See Timothy Clifford, 'The Historical Approach to the Display of Paintings', International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, 1 (1982), 93-106.
13. Edward Morris, Victorian and Edwardian Paintings in the Walker Art Gallery and at Sudeley House: British Artists born after 1810 but before 1861 (London: HMSO, 1996).
14. Sir James Linton, 'The National Art and the National Gallery', in The Magazine of Art, (1887), 150-3, quotation from 152, quoted Amy Woodson-Boulton, 'The Art of Compromise: The Founding of the National Gallery of British Art, 1890-1892', Museum and Society 1:3 (2002), 147-69, 147.
15. For an illuminating critique see David Sylvester 'Mayhem at Millbank', London Review of Books, 22 no 10, (18 May 2000). The accompanying publication – Martin Myrone. Re-Presenting Britain, 1500-2000 (Tate, 2000) makes no allusion at all to the actual displays but presents an album of favourite works with three very broad themes – 'Private and Public', 'Literature and Fantasy' and 'Home and Abroad', which loosely resemble three of the rooms in the display.
16. David Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780-1836 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001).
17. See for example, Nicholas Serota, Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996).
18. See Kinaston McShine (ed.), The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999). [End Page 145]