The new director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Mark Jones, says,“I want to get curators back into the heart of decision-making”

V&A in search of global partners



Mark Jones took over as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in May, ending a difficult interim period when major decisions had been put on hold. Last year the trustees, under chairman Paula Ridley, decided that the previous director, Dr Alan Borg, should go, leaving museum staff uncertain about long-range projects.

In his first few months, Mr Jones, who came from the National Museums of Scotland, quickly became involved in the completion of the new British Galleries. Representing the major achievement of Dr Borg’s period, these open on 22 November, the day that the museum will also introduce free adult admission.

Until last month Mr Jones kept a low profile, but in an interview with The Art Newspaper he talks of his vision. Mr Jones emerges as a an enthusiast for the proposed extension by Daniel Libeskind known as the Spiral, which has been hanging fire since 1995 for lack of funding. He is also embarking on yet another major internal reorganisation.

The Art Newspaper: The most difficult issue facing you must be the Spiral, a proposed new building which has generated intense controversy. What have you decided?

Mark Jones: The V&A has a commitment to photography, architecture, design, crafts, fashion and the graphic arts— and I don’t believe we can show all these within the existing galleries. We need more space. Theoretically, we could do a different building on the site, but why? It might be marginally cheaper, but Libeskind is an incredibly talented architect. The area inside the Spiral is very practical, with highly usable and exciting display spaces.

TAN:How much will it cost? And will you be able to raise the money?

MJ: There was an exercise to see if the original £80 million could be reduced, and this led to cutting the space underground. The current cost is £70 million and we have £31 million pledged from anonymous donors. I am cautiously optimistic that the money can be raised. The Spiral is really needed, and it would be a sad mistake not to make a real effort to raise the money for something we really want to do. We have a reasonable chance of success.

TAN:Will you get Lottery money?

MJ: Major capital projects in London are not a priority for the Heritage Lottery Fund, so with them we are more likely to focus on the upgrading of our existing historic building. I see no reason why the Arts Council Lottery Fund should not be interested in a programme which focuses on contemporary design, art and architecture. Whether or not we will apply to the Arts Council, I don’t know at this stage.

TAN:Moving on to your existing building, what are the major recommendations of the Masterplan commissioned from consultants DEGW?

MJ: The Masterplan is not a detailed programme for action, but more a broad conceptual document about what the V&A should be doing with its building. We should make it easier for visitors to find their way around and generally make it more agreeable. For instance, we should use the courtyard garden as the centre of the museum, and we need to recognise the importance of the route from the Cromwell Road entrance to the Pirelli Garden.

What should we do with the present Medieval Treasury? It contains beautiful objects, but they are not shown in a way that induces people walking through to stop and look. Perhaps we should have displays which will work for the museum as a whole and attract the visitors—such as precious and relatively small things from the range of the collection, and maybe a focus on major new acquisitions.

Visitors should be able to see the garden from the galleries around it—and there is no sense in having venetian blinds where there are no conservation constraints. Why not use the original, lavishly decorated 19th-century refreshment rooms, the Morris and Gamble Rooms, for a restaurant? Why not use the area currently occupied by our temporary exhibitions area to provide a good quality gallery for that purpose, rather than the existing rooms which are only too obviously cobbled together? The National Art Library is a barrier to circulation on the first floor. Is there a way to make these rooms “permeable”, so visitors can walk through them? The trustees have accepted the broad points of the Masterplan, but we are now translating it into a detailed programme of action. This autumn we will be appointing an architect to think through the design problems.

TAN:What about the Henry Cole Wing?

MJ: With the Spiral, the Henry Cole Wing would cease to be for displays. The bottom two floors would be educational facilities and the upper floors storage and a study room for Prints & Drawings and the RIBA collection.

TAN:What will be the impact of the British Galleries? And are the displays more aimed at UK visitors or foreign tourists?

MJ: I think that people will look at the British Galleries, take a deep breath, and understand, possibly for the first time, that British cultural history is very interesting—and highly influential, at least from the mid-18th century until World War I. It seems fairly obvious, but there has been a certain inhibition among the British in recognising the importance of their own culture. The galleries should work equally well for foreign visitors. When tourists are abroad, they are really quite interested to learn something about the country they are visiting. Although the V&A is well known in America, we hope to improve the proportion of our European visitors.

TAN:With the opening of the British Galleries, much of the rest of the museum will look dowdy. What are your future refurbishment plans? And how will you fund this?

MJ: The V&A has the most wonderful objects, but if they are badly lit or displayed in dingy galleries, then it is only too easy to overlook them. We have 145 galleries, and if we want to renew them on a 20-year cycle, we need to do at least seven galleries a year. If they cost, say, £2 million each, that would be up to £15 million a year. It is not self-evident that this is the responsibility of private donors and it certainly is not in any other European country. The Lottery is likely to bear a smaller proportion of museum costs in the future, so I think it would be quite reasonable to look to government to provide a proportion of capital costs. If you have, say, a third of the money from them, it would be much easier to raise the other two thirds. I think the government should recognise that it has part of the responsibility for ensuring that our national collections are properly displayed.

TAN:Have you put this proposal to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

MJ: Not yet, but I am sure we will.

TAN:The V&A has been criticised recently for low visitor numbers. Is this justified?

MJ: Although we are often said to have low visitor numbers, we have the highest number anywhere in the world for a museum primarily devoted to the applied arts—more than the Kunstgewerbe Museum in Vienna, much more than the Musée des arts decoratifs in Paris or the Cooper-Hewitt in New York... If you look at the V&A figures over a long period, they have remained pretty static, only going down when charges were introduced. Last year we had about 900,000, but it will rise with the opening of the British Galleries and free adult admission.

TAN:Although it has not been publicised, you have a embarked on an internal reorganisation. Previous directors have tried this, but what are you hoping to achieve?

MJ: We are creating four larger curatorial departments, in place of the nine we had. The V&A’s collections have to be central, and the people responsible for them should be part of the decision-making process within the museum. This will be easier to achieve with fewer departments, because four keepers can be part of the management team. I want to get curators back into the heart of decision-making.

TAN:And what are the new departments?

MJ: Prints, Drawings & Paintings will merge with the National Art Library. There will be Asian Art, comprising Far Eastern and Indian & South East Asian, with Islamic art. Furniture & Woodwork and Textiles & Dress will go together. And finally, Sculpture and Ceramics & Glass.

TAN:There has been recent talk about the V&A hiving off its paintings collection. What do you feel?

MJ: I think that the V&A should show paintings in their context, but I don’t think it makes sense to try to emulate the Tate or the National Gallery in having a series of top quality picture galleries.

It is not really sensible for the V&A to have picture galleries to show a collection which is somewhat patchy.

TAN:What then will happen to the paintings?

MJ: We want to continue to show paintings in our decorative art galleries. But we should be active and generous in our lending policy, and there may be ways we can share curatorial expertise and conservation resources with our colleagues at the National Gallery and Tate. It is hypothetically possible that we could go beyond long-term loans to consider a transfer of ownership or exchanges. But if we cannot come up with a solution for the entire paintings collection, it would probably not be sensible to simply alienate little bits—I don’t see any point in the V&A giving away all its best paintings, and retaining the dross. But if we can find a way in which our paintings collection can be better used, let’s go for it.

TAN:What are you hoping to achieve during your period as director? And what is the V&A really for?

MJ: Museums are primarily about collections, and about their care and use. So we need to see how we can best use our collection, and there are four main areas that I want to concentrate on.

First, the V&A is known as a great museum of the applied and decorative arts, and we have a global reputation. That is a very important asset, and we should build on it.

Second, the British Galleries enable us for the first time to make a slightly wider claim, that our collection will enable people to understand something about Britain’s cultural history.

Third, the major Asian cultures are going to become even more important in the 21st century, particularly China and India. Our collection can help explain the trading, cultural and intellectual links between these countries and Britain.

Finally, we should be a great resource for those interested in visual culture and contemporary design, and for what is now called the Creative Industries.

TAN:And finally, what do you hope to achieve in terms of international links?

MJ: It has been shown that you can have global museums, like the Guggenheim. The V&A needs to ask itself where does it stand. I’ve only been here for four months, but we do need to look at how we can really develop international partnerships.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'V&A in search of global partners'