Victoria & Albert Museum

Victoria & Albert Museum director to become Vice Chancellor of UEA

East Anglia University lures Elizabeth Esteve-Coll


What quality makes for a great director of a great museum? Unfortunately, it is not niceness. The world's top five museums, the Metropolitan, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert and the Hermitage (judged by the size and range of their collections), all require chiefs who are not modest, who do not suffer from self-doubt, who do not fear to impose themselves. Just remember John Pope-Hennessy, eulogised in recent obituaries as a great director of the V&A, but who was terrifying to underlings and cruel to fools. I know, because I was his last appointment to the V&A and I saw how his progresses around the departments were feared.

Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, who last month announced that she will be leaving the directorship of the V&A on 1 October to be Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, is a nice woman. There is no doubt that she suffered great anguish at the violent and insulting attacks made on her in 1988 when she tried to implement a reform programme at the V&A. Her attempt to deal with the indisputable need for administrative changes in the museum (its underlying structure dated back to before World War I) was seen as an attack directly inspired by Thatcherism, if not Mrs Thatcher herself, on the world of learning. The case of the V&A attracted the full charge of the British intelligentsia's accumulated fear and loathing for Mrs Thatcher's treatment of the universities and arts throughout the Eighties.

It is not surprising that the strain on Mrs Esteve-Coll has told ever since, and within her museum and among her peers she has always seemed beleaguered. 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.

Even more seriously, the museum is perceived as having lost caste. The Sock Shop exhibitions, the notorious "Ace caff with a museum attached" poster, for which she still gets criticised all date back to her predecessor, the trendy Roy Strong. But what was seen as witty irreverence while the museum's prestige rode high, was interpreted as philistinism when the institution had lost its aura. What is true is that Mrs Esteve-Coll, who is certainly not a philistine, succumbed to the judging-by-numbers pressure applied by the Civil Service (overwhelmingly represented on her board of Trustees by its chairman, Robert Armstrong, former head of the Civil Service).

It is embarrassing for the V&A that it is ten times the size of the National Gallery yet has a quarter of the number of visitors (1.35 million in 1994), but the solution to that is not exhibitions like "Sovereign" and "Sporting Glory": Intended to bring in large numbers of the lower socio-economic groups, they taught the museum that no exhibition, however populist can be popular enough for that, and that museum-going largely remains the pursuit of the educated.

The point of the visitor numbers to the major exhibitions of 1994 published here on p.10 is to show how pointless the numbers game is: was "Goethe and the arts" (30,000 visitors in Frankfurt) less intellectually deserving, less relevant, less worthy, say, of the tax-payers' money, than "Goya: Truth and fantasy" (184,700 visitors at the Royal Academy)? Obviously not.

The truth is that the V&A has the handicap of an undefined image, with an uninformative name and an eclectic range of collections, any one of which could be made into a first-rate independent museum (just think of the textiles and fashion collection, which is the best in the world), and still pull in almost as many visitors as does the whole V&A at present.

More than any other London museum, the V&A needs a strong personality at the helm, someone who themselves is excited by the collections and believes in their inherent interest; someone who understands that no academic institution can ever be run by committee, and that the curators who know, and feel for, the works of art are also their best propagandists. Whoever the trustees choose, and that will be soon, should not be too nice. But whoever it is will also owe a great debt of gratitude to Mrs Esteve-Coll for having sorted out much of the behind-scenes, so that when the curtain goes up again at the V&A the performance will be all the more assured.