Four million works of genius drowned in a sea of cream;Books

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
A GRAND DESIGN. Vamp;A Publications. pound;50.

Four million works of genius drowned in a sea of cream On its 100th anniversary, William Feaver hails the splendours of the Vamp;A, but despairs of their presentation.

What had been the South Kensington Museum became the Victoria and Albert Museum by royal decree in 1899. The collection of objects consulted by students of the applied or decorative arts was now encyclopedic, and about to be housed in an imperious building designed by Astor Webb.

One hundred years later, the Vamp;A is world-famous, pre-eminent, and boasts a naff gift shop to rival that at Harrods. Parts of the museum - Indian, Chinese, Korean, glass, silver - have been re-installed over the past few years; English decorative art is undergoing a facelift at present, and the Titanic-cum-iceberg building by Daniel Libeskind has yet to be built.

But the atmosphere of the place remains oppressive. Acres of cream paint defy stylishness. On the top floor of the Henry Cole Wing, Rodin bronzes huddle and the Constables (due for transfer to the Tate) gasp for air. I used to think that the odour on the stairs there was a lingering leftover from when the south court was an RAF canteen during the war (frying tonight: bubble and squeak), but it can't be. The smell is older. It predates dry-cleaning.

The amount of stuff in the Vamp;A - four million items and counting - makes it richer in some respects, poorer in others; the envy of other museums and the despair of those who love it. Marvel at the Cast Court, the ceramics gallery, the Gloucester Candlestick infested with Romanesque gremlins, the costumes, the photographs, the William Morris tea room and the Frank Lloyd Wright office furniture; at the same time, how dispiriting it is to see so much so badly displayed.

A Grand Design, published to accompany an exhibition of the Vamp;A's history and collections, shown in Baltimore, Boston, Houston, Toronto and San Francisco over the past two years, is a catalogue with bookish chapters on how the museum began and developed and how it keeps trying to catch up with high fashion.

Historically, it has relied on flukes and fieldwork to get by. Photography entered the collection as a recording medium. Twentieth-century objects were, for a number of years, acquired mainly by the circulation department, the abolition of which during the Roy Strong regime was a deplorable setback, worse in some ways than the imposition of admission charges.

Installed in the Vamp;A (until January 16), the exhibition version of A Grand Design is dazzling evidence of the museum's wealth. Gods and wirelesses, tapestries, a Christian Lacroix evening dress ruched like a floral loose cover in a headwind, the manuscript of Bleak House, Ottoman carpets and a Chelsea tureen in the form of a sitting chicken, have been toured across North America in aid of the Vamp;A's revenue and reputation.

The essays in the book (the liveliest of which is by Charles Saumarez Smith, on "National consciousness, national heritage and the idea of 'Englishness' ") fill out the display, singling out as a theme the amassing of material and the emergence of the Vamp;A as an exhibit in its own right. A grand design, yet in its present state a demoralising one. Museums are not time capsules, nor are they ends in themselves.

The sheer size of the Vamp;A frustrates efforts to make it gracious and attractive, let alone coherent, but a director and trustees with vision and visual sense could manage it, surely.

There has been facetious talk, instigated by the director, Alan Borg, of renaming it. Changing its name won't help. Let it remain the Vamp;A, and let it become, once again, the great educational enterprise it was before the Thatcherites started messing with it 20 years ago. Let there be free entry for all, and lots more money, and a purge of the shop.

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