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Lara Kriegel. Grand Designs: Labor, Empire, and the Museum in Victorian Culture. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780822340720. Price: US$23.95

  • Dehn Gilmore

…more information

  • Dehn Gilmore
    California Institute of Technology

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In Grand Designs Lara Kriegel attempts, and largely succeeds in completing, several important synthetic projects. She seeks to tell the story of the design reform movement in Victorian Britain by marrying the approaches of cultural and economic history. She also draws together the museum and the marketplace “to unite a number of previously studied episodes in aesthetic reform into a seamless institutional narrative” (13). As she traces the history of the design reform movement, certain subjects—Henry Cole, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the South Kensington Museum—logically emerge as the central subjects of her study. But Kriegel smartly situates these predictable loci on a larger canvas, including chapters on design instruction, calico copyrighting, and the Museum of Ornamental Art. Throughout her study Kriegel underscores the important contributions of laborers and manufacturers, offsetting previous scholarly emphasis on consumers and aesthetic reformers. The structure of her project, which transitions between work room and showroom, allows her to make changes on the supply side of museum culture as visible as those shaping demand.

The first chapter, on the Government School of Design founded in 1837 and its efforts to educate would-be artisans, and the second on 1840s debates about design piracy and artisinal self-fashioning, set up an especially original account of the Great Exhibition. Both chapters illuminate the hitherto neglected voices, perspectives, and collective efforts of groups like vocational trainees and fabric manufacturers. By stressing the self-consciousness that artisans and laborers brought to the Great Exhibition, Kriegel makes a convincing case that, for many participants, the event was as much about production as consumption. Indeed, where many scholars have seen the exhibition as a showcase for the commodity, as does Thomas Richards in his influential The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle 1851-1914) (1990), Kriegel shows how the Exhibition also “invigorated labor as a discursive category that would be available to many different interests in the ensuing decades” (16). Such emphasis on production finds Kriegel somewhat in concert with Jeffrey Auerbach, who traces the distinct, labor-oriented pathways taken through the Exhibition by workers and artisans in his important history The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (1990). But in her ability to carry the focus on labor into a larger stream of rhetoric, Kriegel is unique and especially compelling.

No less important is her intervention into museum history, and throughout the book, Kriegel offers a powerful corrective to Tony Bennett’s curiously durable Foucauldian argument about the “exhibitionary complex,” with its presupposition of the museum and the exhibition as sites of top-down disciplinary imposition and management. To the contrary, as Kriegel suggests, the nineteenth-century museum and exhibition often became spaces in which laborers claimed power, realized consciousness, and asserted agency. These identifications are particularly compelling in Kriegel’s study of the South Kensington Museum’s relations with labor. As she shows, worker impetus helped to determine the Museum’s siting, shaped some of its institutional practices, and led to the founding a Museum outpost in the working-class neighborhood of Bethnal Green in the 1870s. One hopes her work overturning the outdated notion of the “exhibitionary complex” will inspire future scholarship as her work rejoining the machine operator with the machine is sure to do.

Full as Kriegel’s treatment is, there are a few curious omissions: although the study begins with a nod to the idea of joining Louise Purbrick (The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays [2001]) and Tim Barringer (Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain [2005]) in questioning the validity of seeing 1851 as the seminal year in the history of design, 1851 continues to drive the narrative. Particularly given Kriegel’s stated ambition to create a “seamless institutional narrative,” it is a bit funny not to find the parties involved in Manchester’s calico debates pursued into the 1850s at which point they came to assert a new relation to art and labor in their staging of the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857 as well as of a concurrent show highlighting the fruits of manufacture. For many, these events were truly the end point of the discussions about artistic development that Kriegel so interestingly details. Similarly, given the closely intertwined nature of the South Kensington Museum’s birth and the International Exhibition of 1862, it seems that this show too might have merited a further mention—particularly for the ways in which it, much more than the Great Exhibition, overtly highlighted the theme and concerns of empire. Of the three terms in her subtitle, “empire” seems to be the least systematically developed (a topic Kriegel discusses nicely in a discrete article on the Crystal Palace and Empire, “The Pudding and the Palace: Labor, Print Culture, and Imperial Britain in 1851”).

But these are small quibbles. One of the book’s achievements is the space it devotes to a remarkably interesting and well-curated set of prints and illustrations. Grand Design benefits from Kriegel’s thorough and deep archival research, nowhere more stunningly visible than in the figures which encompass sources from design journals to working-class penny-magazines, including a beautiful set of color plates. One actually gets a visual substantiation of the value of Kriegel’s cultural historical approach, and whether in studying color calico prints or looking at “specimens” of laborers from Punch (fig. 22), the reader gains as much from the show as from the tell.

Grand Designs is an important and ambitious book, exemplifying a larger trend within Victorian studies toward a focus on institutional as well as representational forms of visual culture. It should be of rich interest to literary, historical, and art historical scholars concerned with questions of design, art, and popular audience. But it should also be of particular interest to those who work on the history and culture of the market, and to anyone interested in finding new ways of bringing together more cultural and socio-economic approaches to history—indeed, in this capacity Kriegel’s work earns its place in the “Radical Perspectives” book series.

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