The Victoria and Albert Museum is £10 million down after COVID and they’re not the government’s top priority, so Tristram Hunt has proposed a re-organisation. Beyond his statement and a summary of V&A Future Plan it’s hard to find out much about it.
The idea is to arrange the collection by chronology rather than materials, presenting cross-sections of time. The number of curators will be cut and many fear a loss of expertise. But curators apart, displaying objects by period is a material-culture approach and has the advantage of revealing each item’s place in the culture of its age.
Museums change. The V&A was founded as a sort of sample-book for designers, with moral-aesthetic judgements about Good and Bad Design. We don’t look at it like that now, but its arrangement still reflects that purpose to some extent. There was once a time when the V&A didn’t acquire anything under 50 years old. Now its most successful exhibitions are about contemporary design. No-one could object to creating a department of Africa and Asia cultures, which is part of the plan.
The National Art Library (NAL) is another matter. The number of librarians is to be cut by two-thirds. The hitherto faultless service is bound to suffer. Uniting the V&A Research Institute with the NAL makes sense and with the removal of the archive from Olympia to V&A East (pictured), it might make sense to move the NAL there as well. I haven’t seen that suggested but it must have occurred to Tristram Hunt.
Tristram Hunt says he wants to open the NAL reading room to more users and to improve digital access so as to make the library accessible to audiences worldwide. That sounds good, as a friend in Yorkshire said who doesn’t get to London much. Hunt promises that a special-collections reading room will be maintained, which also sounds good, but it suggests that a general reading room will not. Anyone wanting to use the reading room now can apply to do so and use it free. How could it be more open than that?
Digitisation of the NAL’s million volumes won’t be cheap and will take a very, very long time. And as the digitisation of the National Census in collaboration with Ancestry shows, digitisation implies monetisation.