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Institutional autobiography and the architecture of the art museum: restoration and remembering at the National Gallery in the 1980s
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Professor Christopher Whitehead
Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities
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The recent revalorisation of Victorian interiors within museums has led to a spate of restoration projects (e.g. at the National Gallery and the V&A) which ostensibly reverse the modernist project of stripping away (or, more accurately, overlaying) Victorian features. Such restorations re-inscribe a heritage of Victorian museology into the modern-day art museum as a building and as an institution. At the same time, the echoing of Victorian ideas on the instrumental use of culture (i.e. the improvement, edification and pacification of publics) in contemporary government policies (such as social inclusion) adds a further layer in any exploration of the legacy of Victorian museology. The ‘restoration’ of the late nineteenth-century Barry Rooms at the National Gallery from the 1980s provides a case study of the complex politics involved in such projects, in which the balance between the preservation and the construction of the gallery’s physical past is delicate. The project also involved encounters with complex issues relating to the concept of authenticity and to decisions about which period of the building’s architectural history should be privileged and which should be literally hidden from view or excised, presenting interesting questions about the veracity of the institutional biography written not in text but, as it were, on the walls, in ceilings and in décor. Meanwhile, contemporary architects involved in developing extensions to Victorian museum buildings play key roles in the perpetuation or transformation of museum identities, by referencing or rejecting the Victorian past. The Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, for example, can be seen as a careful assimilation and simulation of trends in Victorian museology and museum building (the politics of the commission itself are obviously important in this respect), and therefore proposes a perpetuation of some Victorian values and a (fictitious) continuum between past and present. Conversely, the recently abandoned V&A Spiral extension modernised, or rather
modernised the museum by deconstructing its traditional structures of architecture and display, creating an institution with multiple and in some ways clearly conflicting identities. The chapter considers the complex political meanings of this in terms of postmodern attitudes to museums, to visiting and to museum identities and histories. It therefore addresses a series of interrelated questions: in what ways do contemporary museums ‘come to terms’ with the history (or histories) of their buildings? What art histories and what museum histories are generated through the survival, reconstruction or rejection of the Victorian in art displays? How do they interlock? In what ways are visitors intended to survey or engage with these histories?
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