The V&A: showcasing 5,000 years of human ingenuity

This week, we spoke to Dr. Tristram Hunt, the Director of the Museum, to learn more about the V&A’s history and what the future has in store.

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Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum 

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum is the world's largest museum of applied arts, decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over two million objects and 17 national collections. As long-standing supporters of the arts, we value the V&A’s ongoing mission to enrich people's lives through research, knowledge and enjoyment of the designed world.

This week, we spoke to Dr. Tristram Hunt, the Director of the Museum, who leads the Executive Board, to learn more about the V&A’s history and what the future has in store.

LGT: How has the Museum evolved from its 1852 launch into what it is today?

Dr. Hunt: The Museum began in the mid-19th century, in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in Hyde Park. The initial purpose of the South Kensington Museum (as we were known until 1899) was to encourage design education in the hope of improving British manufacturing and technology. 

What our founder Prince Albert envisioned was ‘a great storehouse of art and science’ – an array of the very best of textiles, glassware, furniture, ship-design, lighting, etc. – which would help retain the competitive strength of British industry at a time of growing international challenge. However, over time, the Museum developed in a much more artistic direction and started to acquire collections (notably Italian Renaissance sculpture and Persian ceramics) which had a design quality but were also of great aesthetic importance.

The science component of the museum was discarded (to form the Science Museum) and the Victoria and Albert Museum started to focus more obviously on art and design. But we have always had a clear, sometimes didactic, belief in the importance of the collections to encourage contemporary makers and designers. Our purpose today, as it was in 1851, is to showcase 5,000 years of human ingenuity to spark the imagination of today’s creatives.

With museums being closed for most of 2020, what has been the impact on the V&A Museum and what changes do you see post-pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic led to the longest closure in the V&A’s history and, two years on, we have only just returned to full, seven day a week opening.  In the first year of COVID-19, our visitor numbers collapsed by 95% and, in the second year, by 75% - all of which had a fairly terrible impact on our finances. 

Normally, we generate around half our income from commercial activities and all of that resource simply disappeared. Thankfully, the Government stepped in with emergency support but, like so many organisations, we did have to make some redundancies and programming cutbacks.

In the long run, the impact of the pandemic will (as in so many other spheres of life) accelerate our digital capacities – specifically, in terms of online exhibitions, improvements to digital catalogues, and social media engagement with prospective audiences. We are, however, primarily a physical visitor attraction and, with so many people moving out of London and depressed tourist numbers, we have a long way to go to rebuild. 

What plans are in the pipeline for the V&A and what do you envisage for the future?

Over the next few years, our major strategic priority is the move to a multi-organisation. We are spreading our wings from South Kensington into a family of sites, all of which have the V&A mission at their core but will deliver it in different ways. 

In 2018, we opened V&A Dundee, which has now established itself as Scotland’s Design Museum and assisted with a culture-led regeneration of Tayside. The V&A Wedgwood Collection in Stoke-on-Trent tells the story of Josiah Wedgwood’s contribution to the global history of ceramics from a museum on the edge of The Potteries. And in the coming years, we will open Young V&A at Bethnal Green in east London (formerly the Museum of Childhood) followed by two entirely new facilities on the Olympic Park in Stratford. 

The V&A East Storehouse will provide a world-leading open access, visitor-facing storage facility to allow the public to wander through the hidden wonders of our reserve collection. And the V&A East Museum on the East Bank of the Olympic Park will celebrate the global and local history of making, drawing on the East End’s incredible heritage of design and manufacture. 

By 2025 the V&A will be a larger museum operation, but hopefully not losing any of its responsiveness or nimbleness.

From the vast range of exhibitions being held throughout the year, what are you most excited about and why?

Spanning iconic mid-20th century to contemporary creatives through photographs, textiles, music and the visual arts, Africa Fashion will explore the vitality of a fashion scene as dynamic and varied as the continent itself. It is the UK’s most extensive exhibition on the subject to date, giving a platform to African fashion creatives from over 20 countries across a broad spectrum of aesthetics.

The staging of Africa Fashion at the V&A this summer coincides with a period of reimagining museum practice along more equitable and encompassing lines. Museums care for the histories of people manifested through material culture. Africa Fashion’s centring of multiple African voices and perspectives not only gives this project its unique flavour but also exemplifies our emphasis on collaboration and storytelling as a way forward. Africa Fashion lays a foundation for future projects, demonstrating that the V&A is more committed than ever in its aim of showcasing the very best of art, design, performance and creativity.

Corporate patrons / Patrons of the arts

The museum’s brand values include collaboration, integrity and innovation, many of which LGT shares. Our owners, The Princely Family of Liechtenstein, have been passionate art collectors for more than 400 years, having built up one of the most important private collections in the world. Through our commitment to the arts, we are proud to sponsor the V&A through a patron partnership and we hope that the charity can continue to enrich society and inspire future generations.

For more information about the V&A, click here.

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