Victoria & Albert Museum

Dear Alan Borg: An open letter to the V&A's new director

Suggestions from a former Assistant Keeper


This month you are taking over one of the five largest art museums in the world, the Victoria and Albert. As a former Assistant Keeper there for thirteen years, but more particularly, as an old hack who has been watching the art world for nearly ten years, I am boldly offering some suggestions.

First, great museums are like great armies. They run best on enlightened but autocratic leadership. Like Monty taking over the demoralised armies in North Africa, you must make sure the troops see you and know that you are in charge. Never say, or even think, "I'm only the director". You are running this show; it is your personality, your experience, your expertise, your vision that counts: not the Chairman of the Trustees, your Assistant Director of Administration, or any of the Soviet-style quantity of committees that at present clog up the museum.

Second, remember that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Committees are also nearly always a substitute for clear lines of communication and of decision-making. At present, not one of the heads of the curatorial departments has direct contact with the director or any of the service departments, including conservation and the research department, to whom they might reasonably be expected to have something to say. The curators all communicate with you through the head of collections and not one is represented on your executive committee. No wonder they feel impotent. No wonder the senior management has made such appalling errors of judgement as putting on the "Sovereign" exhibition, both intellectually embarrassing and money-losing.

Third, the museum is perceived by the outside world as having lost its gravitas. This is unfair as there are still serious scholars working away within. However, it is clear that the previous director and her Trustees thought the collections of the V&A a dreary hindrance to pulling in the public and so went in for the kind of pathetic populism indulged in by vicars uncertain of their message. Everything, from your exhibition policy to the design of your party invitations, needs to be scrutinised in the light of this past, fundamental, mistake. No museum can compete with a place of popular entertainment. Art museums remain places of education, contemplation and aesthetic delight, and it is as such that they attract donors and supporters - something at which the V&A has been singularly unsuccessful in recent years.

Last, your mighty institution has a world role as the top museum of decorative arts. Your curators are your ambassadors; send them out on secondment to the regions and abroad (which will also help combat the accidie from which museum folk too often suffer). Host international conferences on subjects that are topical. Because if the V&A fails to enter the lists, political, artistic and academic, everyone is the poorer. Good luck!