Barringer, Tim (Yale University)
Journal of Victorian Culture, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring (2006) , pp. 133-145
Among the great art museums of the Anglo-Saxon world, a majority are creations of the Victorian era. The British Museum alone provides a glimpse of pre-industrial, pre-Victorian museology, a blend of Enlightenment taxonomies, royal and private collections and cabinets of curiosities traditions which still both distinguish and hinder the institution beneath the spectacular computer-designed roof of its Millennium Court. At the other end of the spectrum, Tate Modern might wish to be an authentically (post-?) modern phenomenon, but it ultimately owes its existence to a benefaction of Victorian subject paintings. The major London art museums the National Gallery (which, though founded in 1824, opened in the present building in Trafalgar Square on 9 April 1838), the Victoria and Albert Museum (known as the South Kensington Museum from 1857 to 1899) and the Tate Gallery on Millbank (founded 1897) are emblematic, respectively, of early-, mid- and late-Victorian manifestations of the museological project for the fine and decorative arts. Housed within splendid Victorian buildings, they stand in complex and sometimes tormented relation to the Victorian epistemologies which produced them. These museums, so omnipresent as to have become naturalized into our cultural landscape, have framed the ways in which we view the world through its material remains and the way we narrate histories for art.