In the nineteenth century, museums of design, industry and the applied arts were intimately connected to ideas about economic, social and industrial progress. Hence, their position in the museum landscape of the time was markedly different from that of museums of fine art. Liberalism, Nationalism and Design Reform: Museums of Design, Industry and the Applied Arts, a new book by Matthew Rampley, Markian Prokopovych and Nóra Veszprémi explores the expectations these institutions faced in the first decades of their existence, as well as their impact. It is shaped by two broad concerns: the role of liberalism as a political, cultural and economic ideology motivating the museums’ foundation, and their engagement with the politics of imperial, national and regional identity of the late Habsburg Empire.
The first such institution established in the Empire was the Vienna Museum for Art and Industry (now the Museum of Applied Arts), which consequently occupies a prominent place in the study. Nevertheless, the book also gives equal attention to museums of design and applied arts in cities elsewhere in the Empire, such as Budapest, Prague, Cracow, Brno and Zagreb. It examines how the complex dynamics between different regions and centres shaped these museums and their aims. After providing a broad, in-depth survey of the emergence of museums of design and industry in different parts of the Empire and their relationship to the programme of design reform, individual chapters explore the politics of collecting and display, the role of design museums in shaping art history as a discipline, the special features of the architecture of design museums, and the close symbiosis between the museums and schools of design and applied art. The last chapter discusses the gap between ideal and reality, providing a critical assessment of the actual achievements and effects of the programme of design reform. The Epilogue looks at the fates of design museums after the collapse of the Empire; after the end of what the book terms “the age of design museums”.
Although the book’s main focus is on the period before 1918, its discussion of overarching issues whose impact continued to resonate – such as nationalism, identity politics, intra-imperial tensions – provides it with relevance to those interested in the interwar era as well.