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Wednesday Book: From mercantile record to fine art collection

Vision & Accident: the Story of the Victoria & Albert Museum by Anthony Burton (V&A, pounds 45)
THE VICTORIA & Albert Museum, created in 1852, is one of the most magnificent and preposterous products of the 19th century. Founded after the Great Exhibition, it had the most utilitarian of purposes - to improve the quality of British manufactured goods by displaying examples of what we should term "design classics" and (at least initially) the raw materials, tools and machines from which they were made. This pragmatic approach was underpinned by a series of affiliated design schools, and also by encouraging working people to visit.

The museum's unprecedented populism (in contrast to the stuffy British Museum and National Gallery) was manifested in evening openings, touring exhibitions, and the world's first museum cafe.

Right from the start, however, the mercantilist aspirations of the museum were modified by the acquisition policies of its directors, which centred on accumulating unique, crafted masterpieces, many of which belong to the fine rather than the decorative arts.

Thus the V&A has ended up, for example, with the best collection of Italian sculpture outside Florence, and far more paintings than the National Gallery. It is much more than the world's greatest museum of post-classical decorative arts.

The museum's recent exhibition about its own history is accompanied by a sumptuous catalogue, A Grand Design, edited by Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson (V&A Publications, pounds 25). The exhibition reached London after touring five North American museums, all of whose founders were inspired by the V&A. Its catalogue has nine readable and informative essays, as well as entries for 200 exhibits. The V&A was one of the first museums to collect photography, and good use has been made of archival photographs of its own displays.

The essays chart the interminable debates over the museum's purpose and the best ways to achieve it. One of the most interesting aspects is the attitude towards contemporary material. Until about 1900, the museum was heavily committed to buying brand-new material, particularly from trade fairs; it thus has an unrivalled 19th-century collection.

This phase culminated with the gift of 38 pieces of Art Nouveau furniture, and one ceramic, bought by the antiques dealer George Donaldson at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. When these went on display the following year, the acquisition was vehemently attacked in the press ("pretentious trash"). The museum lost its nerve, and not until the Seventies, under Roy Strong, were modern items again actively collected. The commissioning of Daniel Libeskind's "spiral" to house contemporary material manifests this new orientation.

A Grand Design is effectively complemented by Anthony Burton's Vision and Accident. This is a major work of scholarship, and Burton is particularly good on 19th-century cultural politics. His chapters on the most celebrated curator, John Charles Robinson (1824-1913), are fascinating. Robinson visited Paris in the 1840s as a student painter, and these years were crucial to the formation of his taste. The vandalism of the French Revolution meant that huge quantities of medieval and Renaissance material were available in flea markets, and were collected by romantically inclined antiquarians. Robinson was even more excited by Italy, which he visited in 1851; he more than anyone is responsible for the collection of Italian sculpture.

This is an official history, but Burton is fairly even-handed when he deals with the V&A's tempestuous recent past. Roy Strong comes out surprisingly well, for Burton is rightly appreciative of his bold attempt to modernise the V&A's acquisitions policy and his willingness to mount polemical exhibitions.

There's a long way to go, but the high quality of these books suggests that the intellectual heart has not been ripped out of the museum. Indeed, in this multimedia age its influence is again on the rise. The Florentine exhibition now at the National Gallery is very V&A, including sculpture and decorative arts; and the recent agreement with the Tate to treat both their British collections as one resource could eventually turn Millbank into a branch museum.

The reviewer is author of `The World as Sculpture' (Chatto)