On 14 and 15 May 2015, Chelsea College of Arts hosted the two-day conference, Victorian Futures Culture, Democracy and the State on the Road to Olympicopolis, a collaboration between Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts (CCW), Middlesex University and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In the closing panel of the conference last week, Munira Mirza (Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture GLA) said, ‘You couldn’t do it without culture,’ implying that culture was an essential element in building the relationship between the people and the state. Munira Mirza’s comment took us back to where we began on day one of Victorian Futures, with the Reform Act of 1832 and a quote from Sir Robert Peel, who said at that time that the arts were important to ‘cementing… bonds of union between the richer and poorer orders of the state’. One of the main aims of the conference was to use this past moment of democratic reform in culture and the arts to think about our future. It is worth noting that Neil MacGregor, as he leaves the British Museum for the Humboldt Forum has been quoted as saying, ‘What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves… the Germans use it as a challenge to behave better in the future.’
On day two of Victorian Futures, which dealt with the relationship of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the rendezvous with the history of the Great Exhibition in the Festival of Britain in 1951, Professor Barry Curtis (Royal College of Art) gave a paper that suggested, if Neil MacGregor is correct, that this attitude towards the comforts of history is one that we may have inherited from the Victorians, whose reaction to the ‘culture gap’ between aristocracy and industrial capital and the multiple shocks of the industrial revolution, was to return to the certainty of tradition as the foundation of public taste. Barry Curtis’s suggestion that the Victorians had difficulty in planning and envisioning their own future, and our subsequent fascination with the aesthetic symptoms of that failure in the 1950s, 60s and on into the present, was one of the central motifs of this second day of our conference.
On day one of Victorian Futures, we began by looking at the view forward from the 1830s towards the Victorian Era and began with an opening keynote from Dr Charles Saumarez Smith (Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts) on ‘Art and Public Culture in the 1830s’. He showed how at that time, the Royal Academy of Arts made a decision to stand aside from developments happening elsewhere, that were beginning to write a new national script for a relationship between the state and the people of Britain built on public understanding of the arts and public access to the arts. This keynote was followed by four readings of the work of the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures in 1836. In Malcolm Quinn’s (UAL) reading of the Committee, he suggested that this new script, as it was being written by radicals in the Select Committee, ushered in a moment of doubt about the meaning of aesthetic competency in a democracy.
Shibboleth Shechter and Mariana Pestana (UAL), took the conference forward from the work of the Select Committee in 1830s to the present and showed how some of the concerns of the 1830s about the relationship of art, design and manufacture are being re-imagined as a digitally informed community of makers in present day Bethnal Green. Michaela Giebelhausen (UAL), in her response to the Committee, focused on how the 1830s was a time when the threat of revolution was still potent, and how the Select Committee had been offered the idea of the ‘artist/worker’ as an idealized way to encounter these threats. Christopher Marsden (Senior Archivist at the Victoria and Albert Museum) showed how the work of the Select Committee in offering ‘gratuitous and general’ access to museums was reflected in later cultural and political debates on public access. After lunch on day one, we shifted perspective; instead of looking forward from the 1830s to the Great Exhibition of 1851, we looked back at the Great Exhibition ‘through a glass darkly’ from the post-war era, focusing particularly on the Festival of Britain and its ambivalent relationship with the Great Exhibition of 1851. Lynda Nead (Birkbeck, University of London) gave a paper in which she suggested that after World War Two, the Victorian Era was being looked at obliquely, as a shadow or intense darkness through which the modern could be seen in contrast. Dr Harriet Atkinson (Brighton University) gave a paper in which she outlined the problems that the architects of the Festival of Britain had in making their intended historical liaison with the Great Exhibition, and that the Festival had tried to banish the spectres of a Britain of capital and empire with an emphasis on land and people.
This was followed by a PhD student panel, in which Clare Barry (Middlesex University) spoke about the pier as industrialised bad taste and the democratic of the street. Julia Dudkiewicz (UAL) discussed Kelmscott Manor as a Victorian utopia constructed in the Victorian era and consumed in the present. Dan Davies (Middlesex University) showed how P&O generated its own version of a Victorian future, and Lauren Fried (V&A) discussed animate and corporeal design histories as a possible future for the V&A as a Victorian institution.
The final speaker of the day was Kieran Long (Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, V&A). In his keynote, Long brought the room face to face with the legacy of Victorian attempts to use culture to bridge the gap between ‘the rulers and the ruled’ by asking how people make accommodation for public life in the present. He also made an plea for a consideration of people and common life in the new Olympicopolis development. At the reception on day one, the guest of Guest of Honour Althea Efunshile (Deputy Chief Executive, Arts Council England) asked everyone to take inspiration from the Victorian era. She said, ‘There’s a long way to go; but in the light of our belief that the arts should have a home in public places among other major institutions, we welcome this. How great it would be to recreate that exciting hybridisation that Albert and Henry Cole dreamed of – to create a place where young people could truly experience how the disciplines can be connected.’
At the beginning of day two, Professor Catherine Moriarty (Brighton University), Dr Alex Seago (Richmond University) and Professor Barry Curtis focused on different aspects of the historical problem of a Victorian Future in which the attempt to rendezvous with the Victorian past, or even to definitively reject it, comes up against an ambivalent fascination and repulsion towards the symptoms of aesthetic manifold and complexity of the inability of the Victorians to project their future. Zoe Hendon (Head of Museum Collections, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture) then gave a paper on the V&A’s Circulation Department and the Silver studio, which examined how in the 1950s the V&A had a rather ambiguous attitude towards the era of its own foundation. This was contrasted with the commitment by the V&A’s circulation department at that time to public education in the arts, a direct legacy of the 1850s. Dr Jessica Kelly (University for the Creative Arts, Farnham) spoke about Architectural Review and the Victorian future in terms of mediating a relationship between democracy, art and the public or the ‘model middle class’. In the 1930s the legatees of the attempt a century earlier in the 1830s to institute a ‘march of the intellect’ to move culture away from its identification with the aristocracy and to broker a deal between the state and the public, used the architect as cultural leader or cultural ‘doctor’.
In the final panel of Victorian Futures, which engaged with the route from the Reform Act to Olympicopolis, Graeme Evans (Professor of Urban Cultures and Design, Middlesex University) asked everyone to consider who were the winners and losers in projects of cultural regeneration, and saw the legacy of the 1830s in a continued wish on behalf of governments to use cultural master planning to manage the relationship of work and leisure. Evans echoed another aspect of the cultural reformers of the 1830s when he referred to the need for projects and cultural regeneration to be transparent to the public gaze. Lucy Kimbell (AHRC Design Research Fellow, Policy Lab/University of Brighton) made the observation that ‘design schools are studios for society’ and should be oriented to social needs as much as those of industry. Kimbell also reminded us of how the route from the Reform Act to Olympicopolis constantly reminds us of the importance of attention to scale in culture, and the need to balance local, national and global perspectives. Lucy Kimbell also echoed the project of the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures in 1836 when she spoke of the importance of ‘getting data’ on the cultural landscape. Munira Mirza referred to the complex legacy of Victorian culture and the need to recognize and emulate the ambition of projects such as the Great Exhibition, a global event that was also accessible to all. She also spoke of the need for a public conversation about the value of design to society. Martin Roth (Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum) referred to the 1830s in Britain and Europe as a time of revolt and revolution, which required a cultural response. This kind of response could only be fully developed by institutions working together to develop a view through and across culture. Sir John Sorrell (Chairman of Court of Governors, UAL) also referred to the need for boldness and ambition in our attitudes to cultural regeneration, while warning that grand plans that do not also build a sustainable environment for the growth of creativity and entrepreneurship will not succeed.
It could be said that the project of the 1830s that we began with on day one of Victorian Futures, which attempted to build a centrist, liberal and democratic discourse on the arts on a national scale, may no longer be a viable option in the current situation, when local and global forces disrupt the operations of national democracy in a number of ways. However, one element of this work that is still relevant, is the vision of a national cultural script determined by considerations of public education in the arts and public access to the arts. In the 1830s, there were a number of politicians and civil servants who wanted to serve the public by beginning to develop this script. On the two hundredth anniversary of the Reform Act in 2032, what will be said about what we have made of their legacy?