The Art Newspaper can reveal that the Theatre Museum is likely to close this year, and its collection put into storage by the V&A. This follows the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) rejection of two successive grant applications for upgrading its Covent Garden building.
The origins of the Theatre Museum date back to 1924, when Dutch collector Gabrielle Enthoven donated an archive of 100,000 theatrical items to the V&A, including playbills, designs and programmes. A further 20,000 items were given by Harry Beard in 1971, and this led to the decision to set up a dedicated museum in a separate building, run by the V&A. It eventually opened in 1987, on the edge of the former Covent Garden market, in the heart of London’s theatreland.
Nearly two decades on, the Theatre Museum’s building and displays are badly in need of upgrading. In November 2003 a £12 million redevelopment plan was announced, to improve the interior of the building. An application was made to HLF for £9.5 million, but was rejected in February 2004, as too expensive. A second bid for a more modest scheme was then submitted for £2.5 million towards a £4.5 million project. This too was turned down, last December, primarily because although it improved physical access, it would not have fundamentally upgraded the displays.
The options are now being considered by the V&A and Theatre Museum director Geoffrey Marsh. There seems little chance of finding private sponsors, following the HLF rejection. Moving to other sites has been investigated in the past, but this does not appear viable. To do nothing is not a solution, since the museum will gradually attract fewer visitors (in the current financial year it is expected to get 170,000).
This means that the only realistic option is to retrench, and move back to the V&A. Theoretically, highlights of the collection could be put on permanent display, but there is probably no readily available space. Although one set of rooms is being considered, these are unlikely to be free, and the chances are there will be no permanent display for at least a decade. The idea is therefore to show occasional temporary exhibitions, at the V&A and on tour. But the difficulty is that the V&A’s programme is nearly all arranged for the next five years, so little can be done immediately. Material from the Covent Garden museum is therefore likely to go into store at Blythe House, the main V&A storage facility in Hammersmith.
Last month a V&A spokesman explained to The Art Newspaper: “We recognise the limitations of the Covent Garden building, and that considerable funds would be needed to transform it into a space which could accommodate permanent collections, exhibitions and educational activities. Options may include separating out these activities, perhaps with more touring exhibitions and more collections based at the V&A.”
The V&A is about to seek the views of the theatrical community on what should be done, and a report on options is being prepared for its trustees, for their May meeting. If closure is agreed, as now seems likely, then it will probably be implemented later this year. This will result in the saving of much of the £2.5 million a year which the V&A currently spends on the Theatre Museum.