Tate Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tate Museum had the interesting arrangement of taking the fewer on a chronological tour of British. The styles of art obviously change, but what feels even more important is that the subject matter and theme that is considered worthy of great art changes with the times. Whereas once, the great works were limited to classical Greek and Roman themes, monarchs, and scenes of Christian importance, later works show the common person. At first “common”meant nobles who could afford to have their portrait painted. Later, however, we see farmers and farms, cities and laborers. While we still haven’t reached and egalitarian society, the change in what is “appropriate” to something more representative is always a move in the right direction.

That said, my favorite works, from a purely aesthetic point of view were “The Lady of Shalot” and the “Ophelia.”I feel like too much of a romantic with those favorites, but I’m also drawn to them because of the sense of story within them. I also loved Rosetti’s religious works which show more conflicted figures than we typically see, as well as one of the few artists who depicts Christ as a redhead.

The Victoria and Albert Museum was a glorious structure. It’s obviously expertly curated, both in terms of acquisition and layout. I could see in each area what the tour guide said about the exhibit space reflecting the aesthetic of the epoch and locale. My favorite room was the Japanese exhibit. Samurai armour is like nothing else, and even the pacifist in me gets giddy when seeing swords that are such works of art even while being instruments of death.

Which leads me to my main point…all the beauty and grandieur of the museum, all the works of art, and, on the other hand, all the talk of empire.  If were me, I would have to keep apologizing: “We know colonization of India was terrible, but….at least we got these nice fabrics,” or something like that. The tour guide was careful to once point out that the treasures weren’t stolen: “they were acquired.” Right. Keep telling yourself that. Being under militaristic rule had nothing to do with the colonized people forking over their treasures.

On the theme of equality, it was frustrating to see Queen Victoria’s wealth, which, of course, coincided with the poverty Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist or Morrison wrote about in A Child of the Jago. None of this was a surprise to me. Maybe my issue  was the way the tour was framed. The purpose of a museum isn’t simply to admire the beauty of the collected objects. Sometimes it might be important to consider that the people who owned these objects shouldn’t have owned them or that the objects shouldn’t have existed at all. Maybe the queen could have less jewels and a smaller palace. Maybe then orphans wouldn’t have to beg for more gruel.

 

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