Life imitates Victorian art Opening: Phrenology. Hoop rolling. An exhibit by London's most famous art museum opened at the BMA with a Victorian touch -- and a royal success.

October 13, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Bagpipes wailed. Punch squabbled with Judy. And Queen Victoria, or someone who looked remarkably like her, strolled regally through the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The museum marked the opening yesterday of its most expensive and ambitious exhibition yet with free admission and festivities that ranged from tea parties to puppet shows -- and drew an estimated 4,500 people to view the art, nibble cookies or just make merry.

"It is just lovely," said Esther Nolke of McLean, Va., who was visiting the BMA for the first time. "The exhibition covers an enormous area, all of great interest. It really is complete."

Indeed, this exhibition may offer a little something for everyone.

Called "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," the $5 million display is an examination of how the renowned London institution's collections were formed during its 145-year history. Its eclectic mix of 250 objects includes a painting by English artist John Constable, a Chippendale chair, fabric covered with Alice in Wonderland designs, and a cravat carved of lime wood.

Yesterday's celebration was the BMA's attempt to bring a little of South Kensington -- the Victoria and Albert's posh London neighborhood -- to Charles Village.

Red and gold balloons, tied to parking meters and banisters, danced on the breeze. Arts and crafts vendors, hawking Italian ice, handbags made of vintage fabrics and wrought-iron garden decorations, lined the sidewalks.

On the museum's front lawn, women wearing boater hats and long Victorian gowns taught children to play hoops and shuttlecock. And Buckingham Palace guards, as stone-faced as any found in London, stood by the building's entrance.

Inside, visitors, some listening to an audiotape narrated by "Homicide" star Andre Braugher, wended their way through the 12-gallery exhibition, and then browsed in the four-room gift shop that was opened especially for this show.

Many said their motivation was a love of anything English.

"I am very much into art, and particularly British art. I most liked the section about 'Englishness,' with the furniture and paintings," says Nolke, who came with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture employee has visited London several times. Her daughter-in-law is British. And she has attended exhibitions with British connections at other museums, such as the National Art Gallery and the Smithsonian, she said.

"I had a feeling I would like this exhibition, and I do."

For Katherine Rooney, however, the hit of the show was not British at all, but a 137-year-old Japanese incense burner in the shape of an eagle. The enormous bird with its outspread wings reminded the 12-year-old of the mascot at her school, Francis Scott Key Middle and Elementary. "Plus, it is really pretty," she says.

The hammered-iron eagle impressed others, as well.

"It's the best thing in there," said Robbie Meyer, an 11-year-old from Northern Virginia, who said he visits a lot of museums.

Though the admission was free all day, visitors were issued timed tickets to the Victoria and Albert exhibition -- and by 3 p.m., all of the approximately 3,000 available spots were gone.

Many people didn't mind.

"We're having fun," said Baltimore resident Nell Stanley, who was watching Victorian dancers with her 12-year-old daughter, Sveta.

In addition to enjoying the performances, Sveta was examined by a costumed Victorian phrenologist. In the 1900s, phrenology, or the science of determining personality based on the bumps on people's skulls, was very popular.

Sveta was proclaimed a conscientious person with an appreciation for beauty and an eye for detail.

"I know he's a quack, but he's really accurate," said Stanley.

The Stanleys are museum members and visit often. A few weeks ago, Sveta celebrated her 12th birthday at the museum with eight friends.

"We'll be back to see the exhibition," Stanley said.

Those are words that undoubtedly any museum administrator would love to hear. But visitors like Faith Chudzik may delight the BMA's staff even more.

The retired schoolteacher made the drive from her home in Mason Neck, Va., to the BMA for the first time yesterday -- and liked what she saw.

"I saw the sculpture garden, and I liked the landscaping. I'm not an Anglophile, but I like the exhibition; It's really eclectic," she said.

"I came partly because I've never been here, and that's ridiculous because I live really close. I think I'll come back."

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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