The People’s Galleries: Art Museums & Exhibitions in Britain, 1800–1914 by Giles Waterfield - review by Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith

Art for Everyone

The People’s Galleries: Art Museums & Exhibitions in Britain, 1800–1914


Yale University Press 370pp £45 order from our bookshop

Giles Waterfield left his post as director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1996 in order to be able to concentrate on writing novels and carrying out research, as well as teaching, on the history of museums. He had been a pioneering student of the subject, publishing Palaces of Art: Art Galleries in Britain, 1790–1990 in 1991 and organising the important exhibition ‘Art Treasures of England: The Regional Collections’, at the Royal Academy in 1998. This brought the attention of the government to the plight of the regional museums and led to their being assisted by a national system of grant funding for the first time. His research has now culminated in The People’s Galleries, a detailed and wide-ranging analysis of the foundation and operation of the major regional museums, which have been much less studied than those in London, reflecting a general neglect of their historical importance.

The book opens with a brief and drily pugnacious introduction in which Waterfield describes his approach to the subject. He has clearly been much annoyed by the gamut of studies that have appeared since the 1980s, inspired by the so-called ‘new museology’, which have treated museums as instruments of authority and social control. He views them instead as monuments to Victorian beliefs in

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