- Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain by Amy Woodson-Boulton
In Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain, Amy Woodson-Boulton describes the nineteenth-century understanding of “art as experience” as a driving force behind the creation of art museums in some of the most important industrial cities of the nineteenth century—Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. Tracing the efforts of a number of well-minded, Ruskin-inspired politicians, philanthropists, reformers, and art professionals, Woodson-Boulton describes the origins and development of these institutions, their collecting policies, and their interactions with their communities as separate but concerted efforts to put into practice Ruskin’s ideas about the power of art to transform society. She describes “art as experience” as a decidedly Victorian viewing experience in which museums encouraged viewers to look “through” art rather than “at” it, emphasizing what art expressed about beauty and truth and the story it told rather than focussing on formal properties such as colour, light, and composition, or on viewing art for its own sake (149).
Woodson-Boulton’s concept of “art as experience” is a useful way of contextualizing the importance that many Victorian artists and critics placed on art’s moral potential, and she adds a material and civic perspective to this aesthetic debate. She notes, “Nineteenth-century municipal governments justified expenditure on art museums through the conceptual ‘use-value’ of art—its efficacy in social reform,” which was seen to come out of its ability to “communicate the wonder of nature and God’s work to a wider audience” (178). It was for these reasons, she argues, that these regional museums favoured the work of contemporary artists over that of old masters, encouraging viewers to view art objects as being “like clear windows” that offered them a view of their society that encoded greater truths and beauty and counteracted the moral and physical ugliness of the industrial cities that surrounded them (108). The value of art for these regional institutions was its potential to “effect social healing, promote moral and cultural regeneration, and train workers to become alive to beauty in the world and in design” (20). [End Page 183]
Chapter 1 traces the influence of Ruskin and his ideas about art’s social and moral potential on the origins of these institutions and the men who conceived them. The reformers in each of these cities identified open public access to art as a necessary part of larger programs of municipal reform and civic improvement, such as slum clearance and street widening. But, as this chapter makes clear, the stories of these institutions were not that straightforward. In this chapter and throughout much of the study as a whole, Woodson-Boulton treats each institution separately, dedicating sections in most of the chapters to individual institutions: the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and the Manchester City Art Gallery. Though this approach at other times introduces some repetition in the content and style of the book, it works particularly well in this chapter to show the complexities that arise when individuals attempt to put theory into practice. Woodson-Boulton shows that, though grounded in Ruskin’s moral philosophy of art, each museum-building project was riven by contradictions because of its need to be financially supported by the very systems of industrial production that Ruskin argued against, while sometimes being forced by economic pressures to exclude the section of the population—the working classes—for which in the ideal they were created.
Chapter 2 continues to explore each institution’s individual negotiation with a wider national debate through an examination of the debate over Sunday opening hours. If museums were ever to accomplish their stated aim to improve workers’ lives, it was argued, they needed to be open at a time that workers could attend. Though the outcome of the debate was different in each city, Woodson-Boulton identifies some of the common arguments that characterized these discussions, including identifying the spiritual nature of art as a conduit of truth and beauty...