The Victoria and Albert Museum: the great Kensington Kunstkammer

The museum and the Great Exhibition from which it derives are the subject of five new books


The reason that A grand design appears to be so out of date is that the exhibition (at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 16 January) for which it serves as a catalogue has only just arrived in London, after an extensive tour of the US and Canada. Its stated purpose is to pose the question “What is a museum?”, and, to an impressive degree, the catalogue does answer the somewhat more restricted conundrum of what the V&A was and is, in the eyes of its successive directors. Intriguing ideas surface to open up a much wider debate on topics, such as the concepts of “Englishness” or issues of elitism and imperialism.

The selection of objects is spot on for reminding a jaded public of the wonders of the museum, and the catalogue entries are packed with information. Exhibition catalogues usually aspire to being “virtual” exhibitions; in this case the exhibition, with its wealth of wall-panel information seems more like a “virtual” catalogue, which makes the volume in question more than usually worth owning.

Vision & accident celebrates the centenary of the renaming of the museum as the “Victoria and Albert” in 1899, with a detailed account of its origins and development. The illustrations are all in black and white, but interesting and pertinent, many of them archive images of past displays; they focus overwhelmingly on the people who brought about the huge institution that we have today. The book interacts fascinatingly with A grand design, perhaps suggesting even more than the team of authors and cataloguers intended, the haphazard nature of the museum’s evolution.

Charles Newton’s book opens up an area in which the collections are particularly rich, Victorian domestic design. The examples chosen act rather as the tip of the iceberg, giving an idea of the possibilities for the patient researcher. For example, the modest design by John Brogden for a gold locket set with diamonds dating from around 1870, stands in for a whole album crammed with examples of typical fashionable jewellery of the period. The drawings by Pugin and Burges suggest the rewards that await further acquaintance. Some of the collections by individual designers have been fully catalogued, and a list of these sources would have made this introductory study more valuable.

Two books on the Great Exhibition pose a problem for any reviewer, because the bottom line has to be, which should the interested reader buy? The problem is compounded in the case of this subject by the large number of more or less comprehensive studies already available. The bibliography of the exhibition was already enormous in the decade after it opened, as one of the wonders of the universe. Its legacy was of enormous importance in shaping the modern world, and particularly in giving birth to the complex of museums of which the Victoria and Albert is the most related to the great Exhibitions’ central purpose. The subject seems suitably millennial and is certainly supremely relevant to the preceding titles from the V&A itself.

Without making very minute comparisons it would be invidious to choose one title instead of another. The extent to which overlap is inevitable is demonstrated by the fact that both books have the same view within the Crystal Palace on the cover. Neither is a chore to read and both are packed with good quotations and interesting statistical analysis; in the end, personal preference must dictate the choice.

Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson (eds), A grand design: the art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A Publications, London, 1997), 4432 pp, 113 b/w ills, 253 col. ills, £50 (hb) ISBN 1851773088

Anthony Burton, Vision & accident: the story of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A Publications, London, 1999), 264 pp, 160 b/w ills, £45 (hb) ISBN 1851772928

Charles Newton, Victorian designs for the home (V&A Publications, London, 1999), 128 pp, 75 b/w ills, 50 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 1851772847

Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851: a nation on display (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1999), 256 pp, 55 b/w ills, 20 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 0300080077

John R. Davis, The Great Exhibition (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 1999), 256 pp, 75 b/w ills, £20 (hb) ISBN 0750916141