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The Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain

John MacKenzie reviews the impact of Queen Victoria in shaping a new national identity and institutions, as the V&A opens its new exhibition on the Victorian Vision.

The death of Queen Victoria on January 22nd, 1901 brought to an end not only the longest reign in British history, but also the period of greatest change and transformation in the lives of Britons. Those changes also had repercussions for many peoples around the world. When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 she was a skittish and lively girl, almost ‘Georgian’ in her tastes and love of society and its occasions. When she died in 1901, she was perceived as a lonely and highly serious stateswoman, who had presided over an era of extraordinary growth in British power. It was a period of staggering institutional change, not least in the world of museums, those distinctively Victorian repositories of a collecting age par excellence, havens of scholarship and rational recreation.

Among the greatest museums was the one that came to bear the names of Victoria and her consort, Albert, the V&A in South Kensington. It was founded as more than a mere storehouse and treasury. It was also to be a powerhouse of taste and ideas in design for both industry and crafts, a veritable college to uplift the values of the British in art and design nearer to those of their European competitors. And it was to do this by a supremely Victorian act of eclecticism, bringing together practical artefacts.   It is therefore eminently appropriate that the V&A should be the setting for a major Victorians exhibition, which runs from April to July, 2001. It is equally appropriate that this exhibition should itself be as eclectic as possible, revealing the Victorians not only through paintings and craft objects, but also through technology, industrial materials, photography, sound, and much else. No attempt to convey the prodigious achievements of the Victorians can be comprehensive, but in this year. filled with words and images on the Queen and her era in the media, the exhibition offers a distinctive and penetrating route into the Victorian heartland.

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