By using this website you agree to our Cookie policy

April 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1417

The Victoria and Albert Museum

At a time when arts organisations throughout the world are facing the gravest crisis in their recent history it is dismaying that some have tried to exploit the covid-19 pandemic to justify contentious initiatives affecting their staff and collections. In Britain last year the National Trust put forward a proposal for both reducing and restructuring its curatorial staff, and in January the Wallace Collection, London, announced a plan to close permanently its library and archive. In the United States the Baltimore Museum of Art embarked on deaccessioning major twentieth-century paintings, partly to finance running costs. In all three cases fierce public criticism prompted a retreat. However, even as an end to the pandemic is in sight, other museums are announcing equally controversial plans that purport to be a response to the crisis. The most recent, and by a long way the most disturbing, is the announcement by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, of a complete restructure of its curatorial departments, a proposal that has angered its staff and alarmed almost everyone who cares about this great museum.

Last year the V&A informed staff that the museum had to find savings of £10 million from its running costs to cover the expected structural deficit caused by the pandemic. Some of this would be achieved by cutting operating costs, but it was clear that the target could be met only by reducing the head count. The Collections Division – the curators – was told that it had to shrink by twenty per cent. A programme of voluntary redundancies was instigated. Having worked their way through the departments responsible for retail, education, design and exhibitions, and conservation and collections management, with some disturbing results – the heads of all the conservation studios have been made redundant – the management summoned the curatorial staff to a meeting on 26th February to be told the future of the Collections Division. This has been formulated by the Director of Collections, Antonia Boström, working with an outside consultant. Since Boström had not consulted curators about her plans there was shocked disbelief when she announced that the Collections Division was to be not only reduced in size but would also be subjected to a root-and-branch restructure in which the arrangement of departments according to materials and object types would be replaced by a structure based on chronology. The consultation period for these proposals was set to conclude at the end of March.

In the museum’s present arrangement there is one curatorial department, Asia, with a geographical remit. The seven other departments are Design, Architecture and Digital; Furniture, Textiles and Fashion; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass; Theatre and Performance; Word and Image, including the National Art Library; Photography; and the V&A Research Institute. Although this is an arrangement that largely goes back to a restructure in 1989, it closely reflects the V&A’s founding principles. Opened in 1852 as a Museum of Manufactures, it was intended to inspire designers, manufacturers and consumers, and over the next 170 years it evolved into the world’s leading museum of art and design. On a scale vastly greater than any other museum devoted to what used to be called the decorative arts, it possesses internationally admired expertise in its core value of object-based scholarship.

Under the proposals put forward, the Asia department will be retained but will have added to it a new Africa division in an oddly old-fashioned yoking together of non-European traditions. A new department will be formed from a union of the Archives, Research Institute and the National Art Library (the uncertain future of which will be discussed in a subsequent Editorial). The other departments will be subsumed into three massive cross-disciplinary, period-based departments for Europe and the Americas: Medieval to Revolution; The Long 19th Century; and Modern and Contemporary. The museum’s two London outstations, the Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, and V&A East, Stratford, are outside the scope of the review since they have separate budgets and staffs but ‘in due course [their] curatorial requirements [. . .] will be assessed, in light of new curatorial structures’.

The most obvious question is what problems are these proposals intend to solve? The answers so far have been couched in management speak about ‘greater curatorial dexterity’ and ‘flexible, matrixed network of staff’. Two buzzwords or concepts have been reiterated. The first is that the management does not want simply to ‘salami slice’ the existing departments but to rethink them. Yet salami slicing is the right approach if it retains sufficient of the existing structures that they can be rebuilt when times improve. The objection to such slicing also skims over a crucial question that has not been answered – what is the link between the need to adapt to temporarily diminished financial resources and a permanent restructure from which there is no going back? None has been demonstrated and one must therefore conclude that this is simply an opportunistic attempt to impose change that is unrelated to the pandemic. 

The other management buzzword is ‘silos’. According to a blog post by the museum’s Director, Tristram Hunt, defending the proposals, the curators have a ‘responsibility to work together, beyond departmental boundaries and intellectual silos’. It is distressing that Hunt should so glibly perpetuate a myth that the V&A’s curators work in materials-based silos. He presumably understands that the museum’s displays are divided between ‘Materials and Techniques’ galleries, devoted, for example, to glass, ceramics and furniture, and ‘Art and Design’ galleries that are largely chronological in basis. For the creation of such successful redisplays as the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, the curators worked together well in flexible cross-departmental period expertise groups. Why then are chronologically-based departments regarded as necessary?

Whatever one thinks of these proposals, it is outrageous that they have been put forward without any internal curatorial consultation and without, it seems, any clear understanding of the consequences. When the curators have asked the obvious question of how a cross-chronological collection organised by object types or materials will be managed by chronological departments, or enquired about such details as the fate of the existing departmental archives and libraries, they have been told that they will be expected to work out such issues for themselves. Inflicting such radical changes on an over-stretched staff at a time of crisis is cruel. The most depressing aspect of the proposals, however, is the failure to recognise the unique character of the V&A and to understand that objectbased knowledge is learned on the job, and will be almost impossibly difficult to acquire in depth if a curator is expected to cover everything within a chronological period. In short, if these changes are implemented they will result in a loss of expertise that may take five or even ten years to be evident, but which can never be recovered.