London museum collects clutter of Victorian age Art: The BMA will be the first stop on a publicity tour of varied treasures from England's quirky, 144-year-old cousin to the Smithsonian.

November 14, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- And then there's the gigantic plaster cast of Michelangelo's David. The one that comes complete with attachable fig leaf.

That about sums up the Victoria and Albert Museum -- an amazing place with a rich and varied collection where anything goes.

Raphael's Cartoons hang next door to Christian Dior's Bar suit. There's a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed plywood office. Without windows. There are Persian carpets, jewels from India, tables from China, armor from Japan, Wedgwood vases, Chippendale furniture and 4.5 million other items of decorative art spilling over 7 1/2 miles of galleries and hallways.

Oh, and some of the roofs leak.

The man presiding over this creaky, wondrous gift from the Victorian age is Dr. Alan Borg. Since becoming the museum's director in October 1995, Borg has tried to drag the place into the next century.

He has helped institute such radical policies as charging admission and contracting out the cleaning. He has championed building a futuristic addition that has been pilloried by a heritage crowd still stuck on Victorian architecture.

But, for the most part, Borg has sought to draw attention to a museum and its unbelievably vast collection, a tiny portion of which will be placed on an American tour that begins in 1997 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Everyone has heard of the Victoria and Albert Museum," he says. "But what is it? Our name doesn't help. There's nothing descriptive in our title."

The V&A could be likened to an eccentric's version of the Smithsonian, a giant attic filled with goodies collected over the decades.

Former director Roy Strong once observed that a visitor to the V&A "is likely to be bemused as to what exactly is the central thread that animates these discrepant if marvelous collections. The answer is that there is none. For more than a century the museum has proved an extremely capacious handbag."

An art historian, Borg, 54, made his reputation as a museum turnaround artist when he refashioned the Imperial War Museum, a once-fading relic that catered to war veterans. Borg oversaw a staff that brought to life for future generations the horrors, heartbreak and history of two world wars.

Now, he's trying to lure a new generation to the V&A.

"It is an extremely big place," he says. "It does provoke loyalty. It does have the most enormous collection of decorative art in the world. Furniture? Silver? We've got the best anywhere."

But Borg admits he's still trying to find his way around.

"I thought I knew this place," he says. "When you get here and start working here, you rapidly discover, you don't."

Rich past

The museum was founded in 1852 as a showcase of the British empire and received the active encouragement of Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria. Initially called the Museum of Manufacturers and staked with the best items from the 1851 Great Exhibition, the institution aimed to bring art to the masses and inspire the best and brightest of British design and manufacturing.

After spreading in London's posh South Kensington neighborhood, it was bestowed with a sense of order by Queen Victoria. In 1899, she laid the foundation stone for a flagship building and directed that the institution should be renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Over the years, the museum has earned a reputation as a refuge for an eccentric staff of fussy curators, lovable maids and overtaxed security guards. The stereotype still holds true in some cases, as a recent British Broadcasting Corp. film showed. The stars of the documentary were the curator who was dressed as if he had walked from the pages of a Dickens novel, and a maid who sang pop standards while dusting statues.

Even the casual visitor would be shocked by the outspoken staff.

A tour guide glares at Louis-Francois Roubiliac sculpture of Handel and sniffs: "It has been cleaned lately but not to anyone's advantage."

A security guard offers a candid assessment of the proposed building addition: "It's dreadful," he says. "And I'll tell the director. He's a worker around here, no different from anyone else."

Costs and critics

Borg agrees he's just like any of the other 850 members of the V&A staff. Only, he has the biggest worries of all, like meeting budgets and shaking the place up.

The $8 admission fee that replaced a voluntary charge didn't go down well in the press. Neither did Borg's push to build a seven-story high, $68 million exploding glass extension that one critic labeled "a gratuitous piece of attention-grabbing.

"It solves none of the problems of the V&A and has only been produced in a desperate attempt to get the museum out of the doldrums. It's extremely hideous," says Giles Worsley, editor of Perspective on Architecture, a magazine with ties to the Prince of Wales Institute.

But Borg is not deterred by the critics. Even though the building has yet to receive funding from Britain's National Lottery or approval from local planners, Borg remains confident that it will soon rise amid a neighborhood of Victorian hulks.

"This building will provide a magnet, a beacon to come here," he says. "People will say, 'Have you seen this crazy building at the V&A?' "

It sure can't be much more wondrous than the stuff inside.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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