Victoria and Albert in Baltimore BMA production: A blockbuster show depicting a great museum as object is starting its run here in Baltimore.

October 15, 1997

"A GRAND DESIGN: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum'' is one of the most ambitious museum shows in memory. Its 250-some objects, each of intense interest, collectively tell the story of the institution in London that largely defined the public museum. Subplots include how arts are made, the changing purposes of the museum and the transformations in taste dictating what is to be collected.

The Museum of Manufactures grew out of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace -- a marvel of modern iron and glass design -- in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. When its permanent home was opened, it became the South Kensington Museum, and was renamed by Queen Victoria in 1899 to honor her late husband, Prince Albert, whose interest and energy had promoted the Great Exhibition and the museum.

The current show was organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art with 10 years of planning and large corporate and foundation support. It remains on view at the BMA through Jan. 18.

The importance of this show is underscored by the subsequent venues.

It will spend 1998 and early 1999 at the major museums of Boston, Toronto, Houston and San Francisco, all, like the BMA, modeled on the Victoria and Albert. (Museum-goers from Washington, Philadelphia and New York will have to see it here or in Boston.) And it will wind up in October 1999 at the Victoria and Albert, commemorating the centennial of its name.

Before the Victoria and Albert, museums grew out of private collections that were opened to connoisseurs. But this one was conceived to instruct British workers and entrepreneurs in good taste, in order to promote manufactures and exports.

As the first truly public museum, it pioneered such innovations as a defined educational mission, regular hours, evening hours, electric lighting, a restaurant and rest rooms. It was the first museum to have a purpose before it had a collection.

But now the V&A, as it calls itself, or Vic and Al as many Brits call it, possesses more than 4 million objects -- which adds up to many collections with many purposes. Picking the representative 250 transportable pieces is as easy (or as unimaginably difficult) as it would be at the Smithsonian Institution. Hence the years of planning and negotiation with the lending institution.

The result is a tribute to Arnold Lehman, the former director of the BMA whose brainchild this was and who has just departed to head the Brooklyn Museum of Art (the other BMA); and to Brenda Richardson, the BMA's deputy director who supervised the enterprise and co-edited the majestic catalogue.

The objects range from John Constable's sublime 1823 painting of Salisbury Cathedral to Vivienne Westwood's ridiculous 1993 bright blue platform shoes. The V&A has done the BMA proud, and vice versa.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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