Six years ago, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll sacked four keepers of curatorial departments and other staff. One of those keepers assesses her achievements

Has the V&A lost its head?



Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is not the vulgar populist of myth. It is when she has tried to behave like one that she has come unstuck. If she had had a surer ear for demotic speech, for instance, she would have known that the yob on the Clapham underground platform cannot read long words like “Ace Caff”, but is perfectly shrewd enough to tease out the meaning of “Free Admission”.

She is now relinquishing the directorship. She has not been pushed; her Chairman of Trustees, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, remains fiercely defensive of her, though she was appointed before his time. The reasons she herself gives ring true enough: the work has left her no time for private life; she has been offered the vice chancellorship of East Anglia University and “cannot resist a challenge”; finally, the vice chancellorship “blew up when I felt things were right here”.

But are things now “right” at the V&A? It depends whom you ask. Yet it is important to know because the search is on for a successor: should the selection committee be looking for more of the same, or for someone very, very different?

The defining event for Mrs Esteve-Coll occurred one year into her directorship, on 27 January, 1989. That morning she announced a staff restructuring plan, already unanimously agreed by the Trustees, that left her curators aghast. A week later, on a day our former colleagues have been kind enough to name “Black Friday”, nine of us including four keepers of curatorial departments were given two weeks to choose between a redundancy package or an uncertain future.

On Black Friday the press and public awoke and divided sharply into supporters and detractors of Mrs Esteve-Coll along the very same fault-line that has now reappeared in comments on her retirement: supporters saw her as a brisk innovator vanquishing die-hard keeper-barons opposed to all change; detractors saw her as a vulgar populist attacking cultural values. Neither stereotype is helpful.

Inside, the Museum battle had meanwhile already been joined since 27 January, and on very different terrain. To the staff it was a struggle for the survival: first, of the curatorial profession as such, second, of the materials-based curatorial departments which we curators believed by far the most efficient units to study and protect the works of art and make them accessible to the public.

What is a curator? In an art museum curators are the people who care for the works of art, not only in the sense of loving and studying them, but also in the sense of taking care of them, being responsible for them. An educationist or any scholar who does not share physical responsibility for the works of art, is not a curator.

Echoing some macho management experiments of Neil Cossons, director of the neighbouring Science Museum, Mrs Esteve-Coll announced a “clear-cut separation of scholarship and housekeeping”; expertise about the collections was to be “divided from the physical responsibility for managing the collections”.

The danger to the collections of being controlled by inexpert housekeepers under a registrar were obvious, and after nearly a year of dither the other impracticalities of the scheme sank it without trace, as happened also to a plan for amalgamating the Western applied arts departments. New heads were appointed to each of these departments, but they were appointed one grade lower than we, their predecessors, had been, and with impaired powers of decision.

Every curatorial job-description was then redefined under the heading either of “Care and Access” or of “Documentation”. Five years later one seldom hears mention of any such separation of functions because in some departments it had existed already, and in others the nature of the work simply did not fit such a rigid mould.

This almost Maoist “cultural revolution” did however result in a shift of power. Considering that without works of art the Victoria and Albert Museum would not exist, one would have thought the curatorial function pivotal to almost everything that happens there. Not so in the “new V&A”. Now, only one true curator represents the very diverse curatorial departments on the committee where the museum’s policies are supposed to be decided; the fund-raiser and other Uncle Tom Cobleys of the service departments all sit on it. The curators are disenfranchised; the tail wags the dog.

The personable V&A press-officers who hand you lists of Mrs Esteve-Coll’s achievements are part of the enlarged office staff that now calls the shots. Few if any are in a position to recall what the Museum was like before 1989 or know how many of the Museum’s genuine achievements are due to the survival of the very materials-based curatorial department their director set out to destroy. The P.R. people may not even realise such destruction was intended, for on that point the Chairman and

Director have been surprisingly forgetful.

So what had been achieved in this now strangely split-minded institution? Quite a lot, but opinions differ as to how much has happened because of Mrs Esteve-Coll, how much in spite of her. The building is now better maintained, cleaned and signposted than it was in the time of her predecessor, Sir Roy Strong, under whom, in admittedly very difficult years, these essential but subsidiary matters had quite embarrassingly slipped. I believe Mrs Esteve-Coll deserves a good share of the credit for improving the museum’s physical state. A renewed attempt has been made to educate parties of children, something Roy Strong had inexplicably caused to lapse. I sense Mrs Esteve-Coll’s hand particularly in the attempts to attract members of ethnic minorities, and for this I applaud her.

On curatorial matters, several galleries have been refurbished. Successful gallery schemes must be credited to the curatorial departments which, having survived the restructuring threat, are making good any losses of expertise and are enjoying a resurgence. Mrs Esteve-Coll has allowed this to happen, but has never understood the importance of minor improvements to a gallery, as opposed to expensive total overhauls. The sequence in which galleries have been tackled has been haphazard: the range of English period rooms has lain incomplete throughout her directorship and is only now being taken in hand.

The recent temporary exhibition, “Streetstyle”, was admirable because, unlike the failed populist “Japan” and “Sovereign” shows, it posed real questions about design and will, moreover, have enriched the permanent collections. Insiders tell me more good exhibitions are in preparation by the Museum’s scholars now their Director has ceased imposing rubbishy ones thrown together by consortia seeking profit.

Attendances are struggling up towards the annual levels attained in 1985 before (in Strong’s time) big temporary exhibitions suddenly ceased and, simultaneously, the Trustees imposed a voluntary entrance-charge. In some ways, the Museum is where it started before its little cultural revolution of 1989.

Yet a new director will find much to put “right”. Take staff numbers: in 1989 The Times reported Mrs Esteve-Coll as saying salaries absorbed 83% of the revenue grant and that, without cuts, the V&A would be in debt by 1992; however by 1993 it was being admitted internally that there had been “a significant increase in the number of staff in post since 1989”. Few if any of these increases have been in the curatorial departments. It is all a bit like the hospital service, where “Management” has become bloated and powerful at the expense of doctors, nurses—and patients.

In November Mrs Esteve-Coll told The Telegraph: “V&A represents credibility and authenticity. These are valuable qualities when selling to a discerning and increasingly knowledgeable consumer market”. The undiscriminating range of goods on sale in Britain’s premier museum of design prompts the thought that the founders’ hopes of improving public taste have been subverted into use of “V&A” as a brand-name to earn a quick buck. You can’t even bank on authenticity: a vase endorsed by the V&A Shop as a reproduction of creamware “...produced until about 1820...” is recognisable as copied from one of the meretricious “Alexandra vases” designed and marketed during the 1914-18 war. This must be embarrassing for the curators, who could have prevented it had they still controlled selection of reproductions for the Museum Shop.

If salesmen, not curators take command, a museum soon forgets its raison-d’être. One of the saddest things about Mrs Esteve-Coll’s directorship of the V&A is that she has never developed a feel for the Museum, its collections and its scholars, but has worked against the grain, trying to turn it now into a business, now into a university. An example of the latter tendency is her perseverance with the “Research Department”, a relic of the abandoned restructuring. What is needed is “study leave” and better arrangements for publication.

The V&A’s Conservation Department, seen as a major beneficiary of the new order, has itself now been “restructured”. One of its members assures me it does “far less mending/conserving/restoring than in previous times”, and that “form-filling has massively increased”. Throughout the museum one hears that decisions once taken quickly and satisfactorily within departments now have to be passed to time-wasting committees.

To work at one’s desk from dawn to dusk, as Mrs Esteve-Coll has been doing, demonstrates dedication of a kind, but is it a mark of a good manager? She is rarely seen in departments or galleries on an informal basis, and it can take weeks, even months for the head of a curatorial department to obtain an appointment with her. All this was equally true early in her directorship and before the 1989 crisis had placed the loyalty of her curators under strain.

In trying to attract a field of strong candidates for the vacant Directorship of the V&A its Trustees first need to re-establish their own credibility. I no longer myself believe that in 1989 Mrs Esteve-Coll was merely carrying out the orders of her trustees, but they probably appointed her because her nonsense suited their nonsense.

Under the wretched National Heritage Act, 1983, every Trustee of the V&A is appointed by the Prime Minister of the day, and in 1989 that meant Mrs Thatcher at her arrogant zenith. The Trustees should lose no opportunity to proclaim that they now better understand their role; that they exist neither to back-seat-drive a museum director, nor to act as docile messengers from politicians of either stripe.

The wording of the recently published advertisement for the vacant post signally fails to reassure: not even a mention this time, as there was last, that the successful candidate must be “a national or international authority in the fine or applied arts”, a condition Mrs Esteve-Coll scarcely fulfilled. This time the wording is all about “advising upon and implementing policy objectives...” and “efficient organisation and management of the Museum”, with only a nod towards “someone with a commitment to the continuing development of scholarship and research and of the educational work of the Museum”.

Those of us who worked under that grand old monster, Sir John Pope-Hennessy, recall that the directorship of the Victoria and Albert was perfectly manageable when held by a confident curator with a quick, analytical mind; it remains so unless the Trustees choose to make it otherwise.

As for Mrs Esteve-Coll, this essentially decent woman has done her absolute best. There would have been a case for letting her walk off into the East Anglian sunset to a chorus of praise had not her “restructuring” of the V&A attracted imitators. The museums of the world can do without imitations

of failure.

J.V.G. Mallet

No one should say the V&A has disappeared from the scene

The suggestion that the V&A “has closed in on itself and almost disappeared from the international–even the national–scene, in terms of the role played by its scholars, the exhibitions organised, and the conferences hosted” (see article by Anna Somers Cocks in The Art Newspaper No. 44, January, 1995, p. 7) is an absolute misrepresentation of the Museum’s record since 1989. The reality is that far more conferences have been organised and hosted, more papers delivered by V&A scholars at home and abroad and that, building on the outstanding reputation established by Sir Roy Strong’s brilliant exhibitions, the Museum schedule has contained as many, if not more, temporary exhibitions of a specialist, scholarly nature than in any comparable period throughout the twentieth century. One would not wish to vulgarise this truth with lengthy catalogues of achievements but a glimpse at some of the events held will make the point.

In 1989 the Museum organised and hosted what was at that time the largest and most comprehensive design history conference ever held in Britain, “Industry and anti-industry”, attended by delegates from twenty different countries. “Design and Post-War Reconstruction” (1994) was equally groundbreaking, while “Looking Into Glass” (1994) marked the opening of the spectacular new Glass Gallery by widening the transatlantic debate among makers and collectors into new areas of thinking. The “Arts of Tibet” conference (1994), jointly organised with the School of Oriental and African Studies and held at the V&A, attracted scholars from all over the world. This is a random sample drawn from the many conferences held in the V&A recently.

The contribution by V&A curators to international conferences both in Europe and America has been frequent and important. I mention but two from a long list published in our annual Research Register which will be published this year in June: Michael Snodin’s paper on The Gallery of European Ornament given in February 1994 at the Louvre Conference “Objets d’art, art decoratif, design: d’une nouvelle muséographie” (Part of the series: Musée–Musées), and Philippa Glanville’s paper “Protocol d’usage de table a la cour d’Angleterre” at the Versailles Symposium “Les tables royales en Europe”, organised by the Ecole du Louvre in 1994.

As the National Museum of Art and Design, the V & A with its wide-ranging collections and internationally respected curators continues to strive to educate and delight as wide an audience as possible. In 1994 our visitors increased by 34% over the previous year. Success founded on solid scholarship, as well as skilled curatorship. Let me assure your readers that the V&A has rarely been so present on the national and international scene.

Elizabeth A. L. Esteve-Coll

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Has the V&A lost its head?'