Letter: Eye-openers at the V & A museum

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Sir: David Lister has written an exceptionally sensitive account ('Offering the broader picture', 31 August) of the crossroads reached by the Tate Gallery after Nicholas Serota's brilliant refurbishment and rehanging of the galleries in 1990. His article rightly stresses the importance of showing both the historic British and the modern collections as fully as possible and in the broadest possible context. It is clear that he sees this context as embracing the whole Western tradition of pictorial art.

Yet one paragraph, in which he refers to the Victoria and Albert Museum as 'the national museum of design, textiles and ceramics' shows by its awkward incompleteness something of the difficulty that art (pictorial) historians and critics so often have with a vision of human culture that goes beyond the flat arts.

It is precisely that more ambitious vision which was pioneered at South Kensington in the middle of the last century and which, insisting on the essential identity of inspiration in the fine and the applied arts, sought equally to honour fine workmanship across the whole spectrum of production. The Victoria and Albert Museum is therefore the national museum of art and design, and it still challenges class- and nationality-based divisions of human culture by the technical range and internationalism of its collections.

Isabel Constable, when she gave a carefully selected representative collection of her father's work to South Kensington, knew that it would be seen in the full context not only of British and continental European painting, but of European and Asiatic arts in general. This should not be casually denigrated as somehow inappropriate to the proper ordering of media in the national collections, or inconvenient for visitors, who are assumed to want to see only one class of human work at a time.

In fact, our visitor surveys consistently show that the Constable Gallery gives intense satisfaction to visitors, who cite also the Dress Court, the Nehru Gallery, the jewellery, the furniture and the Raphael Cartoons as part of a literally eye-opening experience. Yes, the national museums are at a crossroads, but our way forward will certainly not involve dismembering our collections.

Yours faithfully,


Assistant Director


Victoria & Albert Museum

London, SW7

2 September