I almost passed this by as architecture rather than art, but the idea continued to intrigue me, and I remembered many years ago reading an account of the building of the Houses of Parliament that was fascinating just as a historical document as well as the process of designing and building.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is more than just a collection: it’s an institution. Indeed, the collection itself is almost secondary and doesn’t have the same redolence as, say, the British Museum does. This is, frankly, odd, as it’s much more coherent that its august cousin, aiming to reflect the nature of the nation as well as the Victorian obsession with accumulation: they were magpies.
The building itself was always more than just a showcase or a cabinet of curiosities. The museum’s first director, Henry Cole, conceived it as something for leading artists to design and decorate and, long before Marshall McLuhan, the medium did indeed become part of the message. His express policy was to “assemble a splendid collection of objects representing the application of Fine Arts to manufacture” and he applied this as much to the fabric of the building, begun in 1857, as to the contents. It was the natural successor in art to the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Cole also had a hand. Many of the objects from that found their way into the V&A’s initial collection.
This book details the fabric and decoration of the South Kensington building, showing details that are difficult to see and drawings that are not often exhibited. It explains the philosophy, practice and pitfalls of the project and tells a comprehensive story.
It is rare that the building that houses a collection becomes part of the collection itself, but such is the case with the V&A and this is a fascinating account of a piece of Victorian art history.
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