Jasper Visser sits down with Dr Tristram Hunt, Director of V&A at MuseumNext London in June 2019 to talk about the expansion of the V&A, leadership, working in museums and decolonisation.
Jasper: Welcome everybody. Welcome, Mr. Hunt. It’s an honour and a pleasure to have you, right. I don’t think the man on my left needs much of an introduction, but there’s one thing that stood out while studying his Wikipedia page, which I think is … It’s a good Wikipedia page. You’re on your third career at the moment with a background as a historian, a journalist, and most recently a politician, since February 2017, Mr. Hunt has been the director of the V&A. Currently, that whole career is summed up at the V&A in one line at the Wikipedia page, but given the amount of energy and the amount of change that has happened in the past two and a half years, I think that will quickly grow.
Jasper: And I’m looking forward to learning much more about that one line in the next hour. And I think we … There’s some Wikimedians here, if you can update and edit that would be fantastic as we go along.
Tristan Hunt: There’s room for improvement on that page.
Jasper: Right. So let’s make that our target. Now, I know that some of you has sneaked out of this conference to try and get into the V&A. Who has done so? Okay, a lot of people are not being honest with us. Who of you is not here right now but at the V&A? Okay, I thought so.
Jasper: And again, as I said, it’s an honour and pleasure to have here, just for the people who don’t know then V&A very well, can you tell us a little bit about what it means to be the world’s leading museum in art, design, and performance?
Tristan Hunt: Well, Jasper, thank you very, very much for that introduction. It’s a great privilege to be here among professionals, many of whom will know far more than me about museum management and leadership and collections. But rather than giving you my voice about the V&A, what I thought I’d do is just show you a very brief film and give you a very brief overview of the V&A. And then we can have a conversation about that with all of you. So hopefully, this is going to work.
Tristan Hunt: So the V&A is what we regard as the world’s leading museum of art, design, and performance. We are the holders of 17 national collections from sculpture to the art of photography to ceramics to glass to textiles. And the joke was always that what goes in the VNA is the stuff that doesn’t go into the British Museum or the National Gallery, that we take all the other stuff.
Tristan Hunt: Our first director, Henry Cole, called it a refuge for destitute collections. And one of my predecessors, Roy Strong, described it as a very capacious handbag. But there are three founding components, core elemental stories to the V&A, and the first is Henry Cole. He’s the first director of the V&A, looking as a director of the V&A should look in my view.
Tristan Hunt: And Cole’s great vision, which I’ll briefly touch upon, was around design education. We always had this very strong, functional approach to the value of a collection, which was about teaching design. And the museum was never a place, a retreat from the world, it was always a place to use a collection to think about rather functional, often utilitarian values about good design. And this emerged in the 1830s and 40s as Britain was thinking about design.
Tristan Hunt: The second founding component was good Prince Albert, his 200th anniversary, we celebrate the birth, the 200th anniversary, the birth of both Victoria and Albert. They were the same age, I think that … And Albert’s vision was twofold. One, coming out of the great exhibition of 1851, that you would have what he called a central storehouse of art and science. You would have a kind of treasury to inspire manufacturers and designers and artists and engineers all brought together in one place. But he was also influenced by some more radical ideas, not least a man called Gotfried Semper who was the architect of the Dresden Opera House. He was a refugee from the 1848 continental revolutions. He comes to London. He’s a part of the court circle of Albert. And Semper described museums as the true teachers of a free people. There was this notion that museums had this civic function, this civic responsibility, which we think today remains incredibly important.
Tristan Hunt: And the third component, and maybe we’ll get onto this, is the East India Company, that ours from the beginning was a museum born of the colonial and imperial moment. And one of the foundation collections came from the East India Company repository. So the East India Company was the vehicle for British imperialism in Bengal in the late 18th century. And part of the psychology of colonialism was also collecting. And here you see Tipu’s Tiger. And this is an extraordinary item. It’s a wind up, mechanical, wooden toy. And as you wind it up, you hear the tiger growling, and you hear the screams of pain from the European officer having his head decapitated. And he raises his arm, you can see his arm, he raises his arm up and down in horror.
Tristan Hunt: And this was designed, we think, for Tipu’s sultan’s children as a moment of resistance against the British. But what’s so interesting is we think it was designed by Indian craftsman. It depicts a British officer being decapitated, but we think the engineering was done by the French, which is a kind of story …
Tristan Hunt: Let me just briefly, very briefly, say three things about making change happen and what we’re concentrating on at the museum. The first is big transformation happening over the next years, the move to a multi site organisation. The V&A has long looked after different sites. Ham House, Apsley House, and of course the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, which you can see on the top left.
Tristan Hunt: But over the comings years, we now have V&A Dundee, we’re working to transform the Museum of Childhood. In the bottom, you can see how galleries in [Shaku 00:07:35] and [Shinzen 00:07:36] in China. And then again, we can talk about it, our plans for two new sites in Stratford and the Olympic Park, a new collection and research centre, but also a new waterfront museum designed in collaboration with the Smithsonian institutions. So that’s our first priority, the move to multi site.
Tristan Hunt: The second is going back to our origins in the design school movement. As I said, Henry Cole was very keen on promoting and teaching design. And if you look at the data at the moment, you can see the collapse in creativity in state secondary schooling in England. And we’re seeing this stripping out of creative subjects from the English school curriculum. So we’re determined to try and make a contribution in promoting design and creativity in education. So we have a programme called Design Lab Nation, which is about taking our collections to non-metropolitan parts of England, Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield, Sunderland.
Tristan Hunt: Sharing our collections with regional museums, working with local businesses, and teaching design with local schools, and working on the professional development of design teachers. So being much more proactive about teaching design.
Tristan Hunt: And thirdly, opening up the collections here is a brief display we have one that on the moment. Thinking about our Ethiopian collections on the 150th anniversary of the Magdola raid, which was a colonial raid in Ethiopia which brought back incredible riches throughout Britain. And I was very keen that we explain in a very open and transparent way the nature of those collections and the manner in which they came to the museum, and open up a conversation about their future.
Tristan Hunt: But also going back, again, to the founding mission of the V&A, which was always this mix of historicism and modernity. So here you see our new photography galleries. We were the first to have a photography exhibition in the 1860s in a museum. And then on our right, you see our cast cork collection. We have a fantastic collection of cast cork. So what were those about? That was democratising access to some of the great plaster cast copies of great works of great work. And in today’s world about 3D printing, about digital downloads, the kind of cast conversation seems very, very relevant.
Tristan Hunt: And finally, why just think museums are so important today? I think in an era of social media echo chambers and fake news, the value of museums as trusted sources of knowledge is really, really valuable, and I don’t think we should be afraid of knowledge and the power of knowledge and the depth of knowledge of our curatorial staff. And a confidence about sharing that and explaining that. In an era when there’s so much information, valued and trusted sources of knowledge become more important.
Tristan Hunt: I think secondly, celebrating cosmopolitanism, in an era when chauvinism and populism and nationalism on the rise, museums are places where we explore the interactions of cultures and identities and peoples. Here we are having a conversation within our globe in our European galleries. The value of cosmopolitanism is essential to the museum.
Tristan Hunt: And thirdly, I think the importance of curating disagreement. Museums, to go back to Gotfried Semper, are civic spaces. And again, in a moment when politics is so divided and so aggressive, being able to have those spaces in civil society where we can disagree but in a framework of courtesy and respect and understand is really, really valuable.
Tristan Hunt: So that’s why having left politics, I find actually providing a space, in a sense, for civic discourse and civic debate within the museum is more important than ever, and very true to the values and ideals of the V&A.
Tristan Hunt: But that is my part. And it’s your [crosstalk 00:11:51] as they say.
Jasper: That was the sales pitch.
Tristan Hunt: Exactly.
Jasper: There were little things that you mentioned that I think … Get a response from you. And I want to zoom in on the last thing you said earlier. I think this year you said in Moscow, you mentioned that museums could be partly to blame as well for the polarisation in society. And even, I think you referenced that museums should look at themselves for having maybe caused things like Brexit, et cetera. Do you feel that museums, and maybe specifically the V&A, hasn’t lived up to the role that you described just now at the end enough in recent years?
Tristan Hunt: I think, I wouldn’t go as far as cause Brexit, but I think the … I certainly felt when I was a member of Parliament in Stoke-on-Trent, which for those of you not from the UK, Stoke-on-Trent is the potteries. It’s, you all know, it’s [Minton 00:12:44] and [Wengwood 00:12:45] and Wilton. But it’s an industry community in the midlands in North Staffordshire, and it was a community that voted 70-30 to leave the European Union despite their local member of Parliament suggesting otherwise.
Tristan Hunt: And I remember very strongly campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union. And there was this very strong sense that London and London institutions were becoming detached from the rest of society, and this notion of a kind of disconnect between metropolitan areas and non-metropolitan areas, and whether that was the UK Parliament, whether it was the BBC, whether it was the city of London. But I also think that as national institutions, whether it’s the V&A or other national museums, we have to reflect upon that and think about our national responsibilities. And that’s partly why I’m so passionate about working with design education right around the country.
Tristan Hunt: The V&A has always interestingly had this really strong regional focus. The [Birming 00:13:56] Museum and art gallery, the Nottingham Trent Museum, the Potteries Museum. All of them were built on the principles of the V&A. So we’ve had this idea of being outside of London, but I always think we can do more and make it real, make it kind of [inaudible 00:14:09].
Jasper: So is that also the reason why you’re moving from a single site to multi-site museum? Is V&A, Dundee, and also V&A East part of this mission to bring the museum to more people?
Tristan Hunt: Yes. I think we always want to connect as many people as possible with the design world. I also think that there are particular opportunities in Stratford in east London. Dundee was a conversation about urban regeneration, about the connection between England and Scotland. But Dundee’s interesting. Dundee was never set up as a kind of franchise. It was never a sort of Guggenheim model. It was and is a museum incredibly owned by the city of Dundee, and run on the basis of being autonomous there with strong connections to the V&A in South Kensington.
Tristan Hunt: Stratford is this incredible opportunity. The fastest growing part of London, the most diverse, the youngest. And London, in my view, has done really well on its post-Olympics legacy. You go around the world and see those kind of wastelands where you had the Olympic parks. Actually, in London, we’ve worked really consistently to make sure that the 2012 Olympics has this afterlife. And part of that is this new East Bank cultural development. [Orselles 00:15:32], [Sataswells 00:15:32], BBC, and bringing the Smithsonian Institution into that with the best [inaudible 00:15:37] in the world, lots of people in East London, not enough of them are going to come to South Kensington, so we want to connect with them.
Tristan Hunt: But also, exactly to your point about sharing the collection, there are swathes of the east of England, quite underprivileged coastal communities and coastal towns, who now we can get to from East London.
Jasper: And how do you do that? How do you get to them from East London?
Tristan Hunt: You begin working with the further education colleges, the schools, and the teachers, and building up right from the beginning with the local community. And then you also make it relevant to their lives. But you also, and this is … I was very keen on that. We’re working very hard on … Which is to say, you’ve got a site at South Kensington, and you’ve got a site at Stratford. And we’re not going to offer anything less in Stratford. The quality of the exhibitions, the quality of the galleries, the quality of the education, is going to be just as powerful there as in South Kensington.
Tristan Hunt: I think it’s incredibly patronising to say, “Well, in those parts of London, we’ll just do digital, or we’ll just do some of the contemporary.” Actually, we’re going to have beautiful works of ancient Islamic art there. We’re going to have some of our incredible classical works there. You want the full range of the V&A on offer.
Jasper: So one of the projects, and you’ve referred to this before, that you’ve worked, and I think it’s even your brainchild, is that where you go and take part of your collection into schools and [inaudible 00:17:10] schools around England, and if I understood it correctly, it’s part of your scheme to future-proof children’s careers from the rise of robots, if I paraphrase correctly. How does that work? How do you take in an ancient institution with a very respectable collection, how do you take these subjects into the schools? And can you tell us a little bit about the impact that has? You see children that were in rural schools being exposed to objects, now come to any of the venues at the V&A, and maybe apply for a curator role, or-
Tristan Hunt: Exactly. I mean, that’s part of the ambition. Again, the V&A always historically had something called the circulation department, which goes right back to the early 20th century, where the items from the V&A were circulated very consciously through the country. What we wanted to do with this programme was to connect young 14 year-olds with the design story of their communities through our collections, which then inspire them to take design and technology [GCSC 00:18:21], and also support the work of their teachers.
Tristan Hunt: So we work, for example, with the textile museum in Blackburn, in Lancashire, a community that has suffered great economic change and deprivation over the last 20 years. To take some of our most wonderful objects to Lancashire to bring in the schools.
Tristan Hunt: But what you always have to do is make sure this isn’t a headache for the teachers, that this has to fit with the curriculum, it has to fit with their teaching projects. So the teachers came down to London, and we said, “Okay, what do you want?”
Tristan Hunt: And they said, “Well, we want the Rafael Cartoons.” And we said, “If you can’t have the Rafael Cartoons, what would you want second?”
Tristan Hunt: But they worked out what they would like from the V&A collection to be able to teach their courses. So we worked with the Glass Museum up in Sunderland, think about glass there. We work at the Pottery Museum in [Stoked 00:19:18], they’ve got ceramics there. We work with the Transport Museum in Coventry, working on the car industry there.
Tristan Hunt: So it’s a very kind of V&A story about thinking about design, innovation, the collection, and inspiring people through education. It’s a three year project to begin with. We got to raise some more money to make it go further. But what we’re not seeing is interest in that, and we think, okay, well, let’s go upstream. If we’re helping people, 14 to 16 year olds, now we’re going to work on 11 to 14 year olds to make them take the subject. And again, we’re working with teachers now to think about that.
Tristan Hunt: And the argument I always make is, you saw the figures about the fall in creativity. But young people today need to understand design and innovation and creativity more than ever, because automation, AI, is going to strip out so many jobs, that actually nimbleness and creativity and innovation is the key to a successful career. And they’re going to have seven careers. And telling the parents that is part of the challenge. Telling them that their children studying art or design or music or drama is as valuable and important as physics and English, it’s a tough conversation, but I’m convinced it’s right.
Jasper: It’s a [inaudible 00:20:49]. I know that a lot of you will be interested in the how, how do you do that with a team? And I want to touch on that later. But first, you’re new in your role at the venue, relatively new, two and a half years now. And you’ve mentioned that you’ve been surprised by a couple things. You thought the job would be about objects, but it’s about people. And you thought the job would be about the past, [inaudible 00:21:11] about the future.
Jasper: Coming from the outside into the V&A, what are some of the things that surprised you, and easy opportunities you saw to take this institution further and the vision you just described?
Tristan Hunt: I came from the house of Parliament, where there’s a lot of history, and arguably too much, in a sense. And I was struck. The difference is that in Westminster, in that palace, which is falling down now, you always felt trapped by the past. You always felt nostalgia, and there was this great trickle of nostalgia around the building. Whereas in the museum, okay, you’re surrounded by the past, but there’s a really energetic conversation about the nature of the past, and that past is changing so rapidly in a sense with scholarship, the reinterpretations, the different understandings. So the history felt much more energetic and much more connected to the present than it did in politics.
Tristan Hunt: I also feel … I feel this very strongly about many of our cultural institutions, that they’re often within the organisations isn’t a rich enough appreciation for the esteem and value and respect with which they are held outside of them. And the authority invested in institutions and the respect connected to them. And sometimes there’s any almost … There’s too often a defensiveness or an apologetic air, which I think completely misreads the public mood about how members of the public regard the institutions with which we work.
Tristan Hunt: So a richer understanding and confidence in the value of the institutional and the reach and breadth of them in the public mind was something I kind of wrestled with, in a sense, a lack of understanding of that. And then you move as a politician. All politicians are ultimately soul traders, in that you can be a member of a political party, you can be a member of a cabinet. But when it comes down to it, it’s you with your electorate and you are literally counting the ballots which are poured onto a table. And there’s a kind of loneliness about our politics, whereas you go into an organisation, the V&A has 1,000 members of the staff, and you feel a part of something much bigger. And you feel that sense, yes, of leadership, but of custodianship. And with a place like the V&A, obviously there’s a lot of history connected to it. But thinking about how you shape an organisation given your time there and given the prehistory, but also that broader, corporate sensibility, which really, ultimately isn’t there in politics.
Jasper: So basically, what you’re saying, we’re lucky to work in museums and not in politics?
Tristan Hunt: That’s like the baseline. That is the baseline.
Jasper: [crosstalk 00:24:43] maybe the potential that we have in our organisation. How do you help the people you work with, the team you work with, how do you help them to be more proud, maybe, of their work, or is there no need in the V&A because everybody’s convinced they’re working for the world’s leading-
Tristan Hunt: No, and I wouldn’t want to kind of flip over into the sense that everyone should just be very grateful and work for nothing, for passion, and it’s all great. Because there are challenges within the museum sector, deep challenges, about recognition and reward, and advancement. But I think the reason we go into these institutions is because of the good they do in the world. And that kind of civic idea, and whether that’s through education, whether that’s through work in the community, whether that’s through scholarship, whether that’s through soft power, it’s all those components alongside running hugely exciting and fun visitor experiences.
Tristan Hunt: I think explaining to colleagues the way in which others value the work we do is important, without ever falling into the trap of saying, “You’re lucky you’re working here,” because that’s the wrong way to approach it. Actually, let’s deal with all of the challenges that there are working in a museum sector, but let’s also have an understanding of the way in which others respect and value the work we do.
Jasper: So, you’ve referenced some of the challenges that museums face. In particular, the V&A, what would you say are your main challenges at the moment, and how do you address them or approach them?
Tristan Hunt: I think there are challenges around pay. I think the museum sector has fallen behind quite markedly the university sector within the UK in the last 10 to 15 years, and that’s marked. So that makes a challenge, then, in terms of the people we can attract to work for the organisation within London, which I think is an expensive place. That has challenges, then, around diversity and social ability and those who are able to enter the profession.
Tristan Hunt: There are challenges around Brexit in terms of international talent coming to the museum. And as you can see, I keep talking about people, because what we’re about is attracting the best and brightest to work on the collections. And then I do feel, in London and in the UK that we had for a long time really good government investment in the cultural infrastructure, and we had the heritage lottery fund, which was a lottery vehicle for funding the infrastructure. And in the last five to 10 years, the global financial crash and other points, I fear we could be falling behind in terms of infrastructure investment. And when we see the [Budasta 00:27:40] put 600 million into a new museum here, or we look into the $750 the Smithsonian’s raising for the air and space, and let alone, before you get onto France, and you … Museums in Britain, and our national museums, are outstanding and world-class, but they’re often not that, 20, 25 years ago, and it’s taken real work to get them into the position they are, and we have to be careful not to lose that.
Jasper: All right. So one challenge you didn’t mention, and I don’t know if you perceive it as a challenge, but in the audience, that’s why I’m looking at my screen … People are asking questions quietly. And you’ve referenced this in your introduction. A large part of your collection have dubious origins, or maybe come from other countries, and you may be thinking about respectful ways to return these collections to these countries. What is your stance on this debate in this conversation about repatriating objects, for instance, from your collections, or working with them with source communities?
Tristan Hunt: Well, as a national museum, under the terms of our establishment, the National Heritage Act of 1983, the trustees of the V&A to whom the collection is entrusted, are not allowed to deaccession the collection unless it’s an obvious replica or deteriorated beyond a certain stage. So unless there’s a change through act of Parliament, and the Secretary of State for culture said there would not be, then as a national museum, we cannot deaccession our collection. So in terms of, as it were, restitution or repatriation, that’s not on the table as a policy option.
Tristan Hunt: What we can do, and what we seek to do, is then build up a much richer network of loans, of partnerships, of collaboration, of work with both diaspora community and source communities, and we’re pushing on this with Ethiopia at the moment, because our Ethiopian collection … When the items from Magdala came into the V&A, at the time the prime minister of the day, William York Gladstone, said these should not be going into the museum.
Tristan Hunt: So there is a long history within the institution about the nature of these collections. And whilst they were government items, they could’ve been returned. But as soon as they became part of our collection, they couldn’t. So we are working with the Ethiopian embassy, the Ethiopian government, to think about a long-term partnership and loan arrangement with Addis Abiba. But quite rightly, and understandably, the Ethiopians say, “Hold on, you want us to borrow from you stuff that was taken from us in 1868?” And at the moment, we have to say yes. And there’s an understandable political barrier to that which I completely get.
Tristan Hunt: So we are working with them to try and find a way through. But we also have an incredible collection, all of the East India Company, and a South Asia Collection. But I do think with this debate, you have to, and you all as museum professionals know this, you have to begin with the object and the nature of the object. And going into the museums and saying it’s all loot is wrong. The history of this is wrong, because when you look at the way items were collected and acquired, it’s often an incredibly complicated history. And so, you have to understand the history. And you cannot use the collections to right colonial wrongs. You have to work with the nature and origins of the collections, and work out from there. And once you do, I think begin with a historical valid approach, then that’s the best way forward.
Jasper: Okay. So you mentioned a bit how you take it … This doesn’t sound like you’re a neutral observer bystander anymore. When you say you can’t use the collections to right colonial wrongs, that’s a pretty strong statement. And there’s a lot of talk at this conference in the past years about the neutrality of museums, and earlier you mentioned, and also in other talks, that it’s like the knowledge bank. The V&A is a trusted source of information, and people go there because they trust it. Yet when you start formulating opinions like this, do you risk losing that trusted position, because you become an opinionated source?
Tristan Hunt: I think that’s a very interesting question. Museums are not neutral. The nature of the collections, the manner in which they’re displayed, the context within which they’re presented … But I have reservations partly because of the respect in which the institutions are held, and there’s a kind of discourse at the moment for museums being forces of social justice and forces for progressive change. And I hesitate about that, because I think when you’re taking museums in a consciously political direction, when you’re using the institution for political ends, which many in a kind of liberal setting might regard as a good, but we are funded by the UK taxpayer. 50% of our funds comes from UK taxpayers, and we need to represent all those taxpayers. It is their collection. We are their museum. We’re a national museum.
Tristan Hunt: And so, whilst within a certain type of groupthink of museum professionals, that liberal ideas are necessarily the outcome to which we should all be focusing our institutions seems obvious, I don’t think as the custodian of a national museum that that should be the objective of the institutions.
Tristan Hunt: That doesn’t meant to say you don’t understand all of the discourse around you, neutrality of the nature, neutrality within the institution. But perhaps because of my political background, I’m conscious about getting involved in political debates, and the balance one always has to strike, though, is just as that setting was, that doesn’t mean we should preclude ourselves for being spaces for really interesting and passionate discussions about colonialism, the global north, the global south, justice, inequality. All of that should be within the space, but as an institution, I don’t think we should be heading towards some kind of socially progressive outcome that that has been adjudicated by us.
Jasper: So on the one hand, you say, yes, the museum can take a position where it matters, but on the other hand, if you really serve the UK population, and they choose for a certain direction, you need to follow them regardless of what that direction may be?
Tristan Hunt: No, and I think this is where everyday you’re making decisions as a museum professional and as a leader, because museums as I said at the beginning are an inherently cosmopolitan institution. And so, within our collections, we have an understanding of these cosmopolitan endeavours. And that’s why when we do see chauvinism and nationalism and populism, the nature of the institution is in a sense a counterweight to that. But that doesn’t necessarily then mean, I don’t think, that you begin to continue to pursue outwardly populist … Sorry … Outwardly political objectives.
Tristan Hunt: Let me give you an example. We’re in the middle of a cycle of exhibitions which are highlighting ecological challenges. So we had Fashion From Nature, which tells the story of the fashion world’s inspiration from the natural world, but also the way in which fashion has impacted upon the global environment and ecology. Highly political in many senses, highly controversial, and we kind of curated that conversation. We framed that debate through the knowledge and skill of our curators.
Tristan Hunt: We have an exhibition on at the moment, which we’d love you all to come and see, on food and the nature of food and food design and the future of food. And again, that’s a highly controversial issue around genetic engineering, how do we feed nine billion people, what’s our responsibility to the natural world? All of these are political.
Tristan Hunt: And in the autumn, we’ll have a brilliant exhibition on cars and car design, and both the prehistory of car design and the future of the automobile. So that seems to me a museum in which is out there, addressing small-P political issues, and is framing the conversation, and going back to that Gotfried Semper idea of being the true teachers of a free people, helping to enfranchise a citizenry without having an obvious agenda.
Jasper: Okay, thank you. So, with your permission, I’d like to move, because I see a lot of questions coming in about, a bit more to the organisation itself, towards the V&A and the change you lead there. Now, you’ve described an organisation that has taken on a lot of responsibilities, and I think somewhere you said that the organisation as a whole may have a lot on its plate. Obviously, this also has consequences on your staff and the people that you work with in terms of their workload. How do you balance this broadening scope of the institution and the new things you do in communities and schools, et cetera, with the traditional workforce? And this is also implied that you’re bringing on other people in the museum than you traditionally do.
Tristan Hunt: I think you have to have strategic priorities for the organisation which are clear. And so where the challenges began, and we saw this in our own staff survey within the organisation. Where there was frustration was where there was an absence of understanding of prioritisation. If everything is important, then actually, things become gridlocked. And if as we’re trying to do, we’re undertaking the biggest move of objects since World War II within the museum, we’re creating two new institutions in east London. We’re running a packed public programme. We’re running an education programme around the country. We’re supporting V&A Dundee. It’s a lot on.
Tristan Hunt: And what we’ve had to do then is reflect upon that internally. And the red lights were there from some of the staff survey about workload and prioritisation, and begin to thin out areas that were non-core.
Jasper: Can you give an example?
Tristan Hunt: Well, we took a decision around the number of exhibitions we would have within the organisation. We took decisions about the range of works on display around the museum. But as directors, you’re in a relationship with your executive team and your staff, but we also have bosses, and we’re in a relationship with our trustees and a broader stakeholder who don’t like the look of things going dark or they don’t like things that haven’t been [inaudible 00:39:52] or they don’t like a sense that the energy is dissipating.
Tristan Hunt: So how you keep the passion and momentum and the focus up, whilst also being able to say, “Okay, well, we can thin these areas out, we can prioritise effectively …” But you also, you have to make sure, and I think this is one of the lessons I’ve learned … You all know this better than me, but hiring is just so important, and having the confidence not to hire at the wrong time. Having the confidence not to appoint when you don’t think the candidates are right, will save yourself so much time into the future.
Tristan Hunt: So when you are working at full pelt, it seems to me those crunch decisions around personnel are incredibly important.
Jasper: And there’s a lot of talk in the industry about hiring practises within museums, and some say that museums and especially national museums, tend to hire people from privileged backgrounds, because they’re the only ones that can afford to work in a national museum in London, and thereby disadvantaged people, who may represent many of the collections and many of the issues you’ve spoken about. Does the V&A take a position on that, or are you trying to change your hiring practises and enable, open up the museum also to workers who may not come from wealth or another privileged background?
Tristan Hunt: Well, I think the first thing we’re doing, and we do understand this, and it’s a challenge, and the first thing we’re doing is what I explained, is going upstream. If you’re an 11 year old in Stoke-on-Trent, doesn’t think art or design is for them, they’re not going to be applying for a curatorial position in South Kensington 15 years later. If we’re not in the source communities, and that’s as much around class as it is ethnicity, then we’re not going to build the pipeline into the future.
Tristan Hunt: So having a programme in parts of the country where we are not seeing talent come to the organisation for the future is a long-term strategy.
Tristan Hunt: What we’re also doing, because we’re going to be in East London, highly diverse communities, working very, very closely with the FE colleges, the universities, the schools. Again, on a longer pipeline of talent for the organisation, thinking that the V&A is their museum, somewhere they know, somewhere where they volunteer, somewhere the family knows, somewhere they can see themselves and work.
Tristan Hunt: This morning, we signed off at our executive [inaudible 00:42:45] on a new work experience programme, consciously focused on disadvantaged communities, consciously focused on more diverse participants. We are going out to them to bring them into the organisation to work on the pipeline.
Tristan Hunt: And then we’re smart about where we’re advertising, the language we’re using, the schools we want. We can do much more, both at board level, senior executive level, curatorial level, right across the organisation. So we understand it’s there. We understand we need to respond to it. But we also understand in the long run you got to build a pipeline around it, but it’s also crucially about social class as much as it is around ethnicity, and obviously those often come together.
Jasper: So, this is a question that came in while … While you’re talking, I see like there’s almost two V&As, or maybe there’s the V and the A. I don’t know about the history [crosstalk 00:43:50], whereas the one side is this old national institution rooted in collections that has the London office and beautiful exhibitions, et cetera. And then there’s the other institution that is going out in the world and actively trying to engage more communities, work differently, work with different people. And somebody mentioned, if you look at your posters, the advertisements and campaigns you do, they seem to be very much focused on that [inaudible 00:44:20], the traditional side of things. Are you also planning to redo the brand, or how do you see this duality? Is that even something that’s not really there?
Tristan Hunt: No, I think the brand is very strong. I think the duality is part of the magic of it. And you go back through the tensions of the organisation, and it began, as I said, coming out of the 1851 Great Exhibition, this quite self-conscious focus on manufacturing, design, technology. But then they start to hire curators in the 1870s and 1880s, and these curators want to go and buy beautiful things.
Tristan Hunt: And so there’s man called JC Robinson who goes up and builds up our Canova collection. He goes to Italy and buys some of the great collections, the Spanish collections begin to come in. And he comes back and gets sacked by the director, who’s saying, “What are you doing? We’re meant to be helping manufacturing in the west Midlands, not building up our European sculptural collection?” And then he’s rehired again, because suddenly everyone likes to see Donatellos.
Tristan Hunt: So you’ve had these internal tensions within the organisation, which when everything is working, we think provides the magic of the organisation. But you’ve also, right from the beginning, had this South Kensington Albertopolis where we are at the moment focused, alongside this very, very strong regional agenda. As I said, the Birmingham, Nottingham, Stoke. These museums, these regional museums, were consciously focused on Victorian Albert museums.
Tristan Hunt: So I think one supports the other, and I think the magic of one connects the other. The reason why I think 14 year olds, Coventry or Sutherland or Blackburn would want to get involved in one of our projects is because it’s the V&A and there’s a power connected to that history and that institution. And then they come down to London, they see the nature … I mean, we’re very blessed by our building, and the history embedded in our building, and the meaning of that space.
Tristan Hunt: So I don’t feel any embarrassment about that kind of brand. Actually, on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Victoria and Albert … We’re very happy with our founders.
Jasper: It’s really the V&A. So I know some people are in the room. One day they want to be director of the V&A. Who wants to be the director of the V&A one day?
Tristan Hunt: [inaudible 00:47:18].
Jasper: There you see. Again, people are shy, but it’s true. I know that … I wouldn’t mind sitting in your [inaudible 00:47:25]. You’re on your third career according to Wikipedia, right? And from that perspective, from your experience, if you think about the future museum leaders, the people that will step into your shoes later on, what kind of recommendations you give within this complex, shifting board of responsibilities of the museum? What are things to do and focus on if you are vying, like some of the people brave enough mentioned, to one day become the director of the V&A?
Tristan Hunt: When I speak to our heads of department or keepers of collections elsewhere, they look today for scholarly brilliance in ceramics, metal work, textiles. But what they really look for is an evidence, an inclination, for collaboration. And the ability to, I think, particularly museums today and in the future, the ability to be collaborative. The ability to think how the institution connects up with other institutions, how it connects up with community groups, how it connects up with artistic festivals, how it connects to government, how it connects to business.
Tristan Hunt: I think a collaborative mindset around the institution is more important than ever. In many ways, to my mind, that’s going back to the foundations of what an institution like the V&A and other civic museums were about.
Tristan Hunt: There’s a brilliant book if you haven’t read it by Charles Waterfield called the People’s Galleries, which tells the story of the foundations of regional and civic and museums like the V&A in the mid-19th century. And they were much less prissy about involvement with business, with government, with community. They had a collaborative feel, and I think in the … Well, after the mid to latter half of the 20th century, museums became much more scholastic, monastic institutions, very concerned about the purity of the collections and the nature of the collections.
Tristan Hunt: And yes, that produced brilliant scholarship, but as one of my very brilliant predecessors, it’s this lovely quote he said … “So glad at the end of the day when the public finally leave and we can get on with our job.” And that was a sense of what the museum was about then, whereas actually the foundation of the museum had a different ethos. It had a different sensibility.
Tristan Hunt: So I think a collaborative mindset, and in that sense, an entrepreneurial mindset about the opportunities for collaboration is very important.
Jasper: So that’s the number one skill you’d hope everyone has taken away? All right. So to wrap up, you’ve talked about a lot of the projects at the V&A. You’ve been there two and a half years. We get some nice music, thank you. You’ve been there two and a half years, and I think so far, many of the things we’ve seen like the V&A have been initiated by are your predecessors, but by now probably we’ll start seeing things you’ve initiated, your own agenda for the organisation.
Jasper: What are the things in the coming months, years, that we can expect from the V&A and that we need to look forward to?
Tristan Hunt: Well, without … I was delighted. The first exhibitions I commissioned are on at the moment, so [Dior 00:51:02] and [Mary Quant 00:51:02] are on, and I think they’re doing quite well at the moment. So it’s nice to have that in place. I think you’ll see in the coming cycle of exhibitions a determination to stretch right across the nature of the collections within the V&A. I think it’s enormously important that with an exhibition cycle that the full range of the house is given voice.
Tristan Hunt: Expansion and continuation and embedding of the regional education strategy, and a big focus on the importance of design education. And we in a few years will be hoping to reach every design teacher in England, that they should regard the V&A as their natural [inaudible 00:51:55] for curriculum material, for professional development, for project work, that we will be the go-to institution to help them teach design.
Tristan Hunt: And then the expansion of the coming years, so in Stratford, and with it the transformation of our museum of Charleston in Bethnal Green, which is enough to keep me going. [crosstalk 00:52:18]
Jasper: All right, yeah, so any plans for your fourth career?
Tristan Hunt: No, no, no,no, no. That’s the younger generation. I feel very, very privileged to be in the post I’m in.
Jasper: In this job, right? Okay, maybe for the people, who do you get into Dior if you don’t have a ticket?
Tristan Hunt: Your ICOM card should absolutely let you in.
Jasper: All right, we’ll definitely keep an eye.
Tristan Hunt: You might have to wait a bit. They might give you a time for later in the day, but you’ll get in.
Jasper: Okay, so take your ICOM card, go and see the Dior Exhibtion. Tristan, thank you so much for sharing a light on that.
Tristan Hunt: Thank you.
About the author – Jasper Visser
Jasper Visser is an international change agent and social and cultural innovator. He is a highly-experienced facilitator and designs and manages audience engagement, co-creation and participation projects.
Jasper has extensive experience in the cultural and heritage sectors and social institutions. Jasper is senior partner at the consultancy boutique VISSCH+STAM.
Jasper is a conference chair for MuseumNext Europe.