`Philistine' proves critics warnings groundless

Iain Gale looks at the legacy of the departing director of the V&A
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Elizabeth Esteve-Coll's directorship of the Victoria & Albert was criticised from day one. The forces of reaction, led by that formidable gentleman scholar, the late Sir John Pope Hennesey, labelled her "a vulgar populariser . . . destructive to s cholarship".

The headlines that followed, with their cries of "Goodbye tradition, hello commerce," seemed to many to announce that, in the new director's plans to reform the museum, an old friend was coming under attack from the free-market forces of a Thatcherite


The axing of several curatorial posts, the infamous "massacre of the scholars", confirmed the worst. But, looking at the museum almost seven years on, it can be argued that such fears were groundless.

Far from being a philistine driven by the urge to make the museum a workable business, Ms Esteve-Coll has emerged as a sensitive art historian with an enviable flair for making art accessible to the wider public.

Within the newly cleaned exterior, the forbidding halls of fogeydom have been transformed into a welcoming environment staffed by informed guides and furnished with piles of easy-to-follow floor plans.

Given the vast size of the collections, it was a simple and eminently sensible step to offer visitors a variety of approaches, tailored to suit their available time. Those with a few minutes are advised to take in "five major objects", while others will take more than an hour for a dutiful perambulation of one of the five walks, which each deal with a different area of scholarship.

Even in the 1900s the V&A was criticised as "confusing and wearisome". To have successfully rationlised this artistic melange is no mean achievement. Ms Esteve-Coll has taken the museum back to the wishes of its founder, Henry Cole, that it should be a coherent and popular lesson in the virtue of good design and manufacture rather than "a mere unintelligible lounge for idlers". She has been quoted as saying: "A great national collection belongs to the people".

Faced by lack of public funding, the director has also successfully tapped into private funding to finance new galleries of Indian and Chinese art, glass and metalwork. She defined her mission at the outset: she wanted to cash in on the museum's proximi t y to Harrods: "People who come in here to look at beautiful thingsgo in there to acquire beautiful things," she declared.

Her idea was to create a walk-through equivalent of the lifestyle magazine. That she was right is borne out by the amount spent every month on such periodicals and the success of the V&A's "voluntary" contribution scheme.

An integral part of this policy was the enlarging of the V&A shop, whose shelves now boast an impressive selection of books. The range of museum merchandise has been increased and only last week Ms Esteve-Coll announced the realisation of her long-awaited plan to move into the big league of the trinkets market with the setting up of a company to make and market reproductions of museum artefacts.

Much of this is, of course, anathema to the purists who would still overturn the moneychangers' tables and return the museum to its previous incarnation as a temple of art. But this is an outmoded conceit.

In tapping in to heart of the public of the Nineties, Ms Esteve-Coll has opened the treasury of one of this country's greatest collections to an entirely new audience.

Major anolamies do, of course, still exist in the display of the collections. Notably, the denying Europe's premier collection of post-classical sculpture the level of attention recently accorded to that held in the Louvre, in Paris.

Whatever your misgivings about her methods, however, there is no denying that Elizabeth Esteve-Coll bequeathes to her successor a museum in tune with our times.