The Victoria and Albert Museum in London announced in November that it had appointed the current director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC to lead its new satellite museum. Gus Casely-Hayford was named as the museum’s head. The cultural historian who also has extensive experience working as a broadcaster will be in charge of the creative strategies and programming across the pair of venues that make up the soon to be launched V&A East. The experienced museum professional and is expected to be at the helm of the V&A’s new venture in the east of the capital long before the five-storey museum opens, something that is due to happen in 2023.
Casely-Hayford has been working at the US National Museum of African Art, located on the National Mall in Washington DC, since 2018. The announcement made by the V&A’s board signals a return to London for Casely-Hayford, the city of his birth. Many in the sector have noted that his appointment is one of the most important in the industry. This is because the outpost museum is likely to be among the most significant new museum projects that will take place over the course of the next decade or so in the UK.
The Expansion of the Victoria and Albert
The V&A, which is already the planet’s largest museum that is entirely dedicated to decorative arts and design, is located in Kensington in West London. It houses a permanent collection that consists of well over 2.25 million objects, ranging from ceramics and textiles to ironwork and photography. Speaking of joining such a large museum group – which also includes the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, a borough of East London – Casely-Hayford said, “[The V&A] has long been the arts institution that I’ve looked to for inspiration as well as innovation.” He went on to say that he considered himself to be in an enormously privileged position to lead the group’s expansion with its new V&A East site. “To be asked to become part of the fantastic team… is most thrilling,” he said
According to the V&A, its East London project will mean that two inter-connected sites are created to form a single new museum. These are both located in the Queen Elizabeth II Park, the former Olympic site that was at the heart of the London 2012 games. The brand-new museum, which is due to hold a newly curated collection, will be situated at Stratford Waterfront. The other site will be a novel research centre which is slated for Here East. The museum will be part of a new cultural zone at the park. It will include other cultural headquarters including a dance theatre for Sadler’s Wells, a BBC recording and performance studio and a college of fashion run by the University of the Arts London.
Opening within four years, V&A East will also be the home to what is referred to as a ‘unique and unprecedented partnership’ across the Atlantic. The V&A will work in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, Casely-Hayford’s current employer, to make the largest museum partnership and arts research complex anywhere in the world. It is understood that the new collection and research centres will mean that the V&A will be able to bring many of its treasures out of its vaults and to place them on public view for the first time in many years – something that has presumably attracted Casely-Hayford to the opportunity.
The Search for a Leader
Tim Reeve, the deputy director of the V&A, said that the museum group has searched far and wide to find the right leader for this large project. “This is a hugely ambitious venture for East London as well as for the wider UK,” he said. “It provides us with an opportunity for international cultural exchange,” Reeve added. The deputy director went on to say that, with the right leadership in place, V&A East would allow the museum group to transform the way it engages with younger and more diverse audiences. “[We want]… to revolutionise how the objects in our collection are able to be accessed and experienced,” he said.
Clearly, Casely-Hayford’s work in Washington DC impressed the V&A’s board. Speaking after the announcement was made, the newly appointed museum director said the V&A was a museum group that shared his appetite and ambition to alter the way in which museum professionals work and the way that they engage with the public. “We are going to come up with dynamic and compelling ideas for our audiences,” he said of his future mission. The new museum leader also said that he wanted to allow members of the visiting public to, “get close to the extraordinary” as well as allowing them to be “transported across time and geography”. Casely-Hayford said that this could be achieved by offering access to the most beautiful and intriguing artefacts.
The new leader of V&A East, who is expected to take up his new position early in 2020, is a former executive director of arts strategy when he worked at the Arts Council for England. The museum professional has also worked in numerous advisory roles at a variety of arts institutions, sitting on several boards in the past. As a broadcaster, Casely-Hayford’s credits include working on ‘The Culture Show’ for the BBC as well as presenting two series called ‘Lost Kingdoms of Africa’ which aired on BBC Four. The renowned arts presenter has also fronted two series of ‘Tate Britain’s Great British Walks’ for Sky Arts. As an academic, Casely-Hayford has lectured widely and is an honorary fellow of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He has also been given a Cultural Fellowship at King’s College, London, among many other prestigious awards.
Speaking of his new role, Casely-Hayford said the V&A has the most thrilling single body of material culture in its collection that he has ever encountered. For his part, Reeve stated that the appointee would be “perfectly placed” to lead the East London project and to establish its “identity, purpose and programme.”
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.