The collected works The Victoria and Albert Museum contains 4.5 million choice objects, 250 of which will be visiting Baltimore.

October 05, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

LONDON -- Just past the 16th-century statue of Samson slaying a Philistine is a glass case of Marvel's Krazy Kat comic books. Works by Raphael are in the next wing. Down the hall is a windup wooden tiger from India, a gold-and-lacquer Japanese picnic box and an enormous Elizabethan bed.

If it is collectible, there's an excellent chance that London's Victoria and Albert Museum has collected it. Many, many examples of it. Whatever it is. So, you like silver spoons? The V&A has them.

Shoes? Tapestries? Wedgewood vases? Liquor labels? Reliquaries?

The museum has them.

Shelf after shelf, case after case. They hold teapots, tumblers, exotic jewels, jade wine cups from India, lamps, British miniature paintings, 14th-century stained glass, Chippendale chairs, fans, Toulouse Lautrec posters, Chinese painted screens and Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations. One of the biggest Persian carpets ever made covers a wall. A gallery is dedicated to wrought iron. Another to dresses. To glass. To medieval altar pieces. To plaster casts of Italian sculpture.

The V&A has taught the art world that all of these objects are museum-worthy. For nearly 150 years, the institution's primary mission has been teaching the public about the wonders of form, rather than dazzling lovers of art. It is a museum where design is valued as much as fine art; the process of creation as much as the masterpiece. And the V&A -- not the Louvre or Britain's National Gallery -- has served as a leading inspiration for nearly every American museum.

So it's fitting that a sampling of the V&A's 4.5 million objects is coming to the Baltimore Museum of Art next Sunday and will be on display there through Jan. 18. Ten years in the planning, the show was first suggested by former BMA director Arnold Lehman, who recently left his Baltimore post to head the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Organized by Lehman and BMA deputy director Brenda Richardson in conjunction with the V&A, the $5 million exhibition will include 250 objects, from a pair of vivid blue mock-croc platform shoes created by Vivienne Westwood to a 15th-century Egyptian mosque lamp.

"We wanted to show the way in which the museum stimulates and challenges assumptions about art and design," says Malcolm Baker, the V&A curator who since 1993 has overseen the project on the London end. "We hoped to capture a sense of the immense diversity of material."

A wondrous place

The V&A, a welter of massive Victorian buildings, sits on 12 acres in south Kensington, a neighborhood that includes Kensington Palace and its lush gardens, the Royal Albert Hall, Britain's Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, where a bronze stegosaurus roams the lawn. From the outside, the V&A seems grand and aloof. Inside, the corridors and galleries hint of hidden wonders, as though passageways in a magical storybook palace.

Follow them as they twist and turn over more than seven miles. Here are treasures from the Ming Dynasty; there, tapestries embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots. Next door is a room filled with candlesticks. Is this Ali Baba's cave? Or have you fallen down a rabbit hole?

"We hope you can appreciate the art here," says Robin Cole-Hamilton, head of public relations. "Observe it. Study it. You can fall in love with it if you want. But don't be isolated from it."

Discoveries here are made in many forms. You are as likely to experience an epiphany from coming across a radio like the one your brother owned in fifth grade as from meditating on the brush strokes of a master painter.

"The V&A is an art museum -- you can see a sculpture by Donatello or a painting by Constable," says Baker, who is the V&A's deputy head of research.

"But it also is a museum of design -- where you see objects you are familiar with. That's why it is so inviting: It is a museum that produces a cluster of emotions."

The V&A was founded to bring art to the general public -- and to inspire Britain's workers to excellence in design. The impetus was the Great Exhibition of 1851, an international trade fair held at London's Crystal Palace. "At that exhibition, all the countries showed their best industrial work," says Anne Poulet, curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the exhibition will travel after it leaves Baltimore.

"The English felt that they had fallen behind the French in design, so they decided to found a museum -- a museum with this strong educational goal. It was the first time that a museum considered teaching people through objects on display."

Initially called the Museum of Manufactures, and then the South Kensington Museum, the institution was championed by Prince Albert until his death in 1861. Queen Victoria laid the cornerstone in 1899 for the enormous building that now forms the museum's entrance hall and changed its name to the Victoria and Albert.

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