“On Friday 9 November I was invited to give the keynote speech at the Museums Association conference. Here is that speech in full for you to read…
It’s always a pleasure to come to Edinburgh. And it is a double pleasure to be invited here to meet so many of my friends in the Museums Association. I want to use this opportunity, if I may, to reflect on the role of museums in a time of austerity. And in particular I want to reflect on the role of my own museum, the V&A, in a time of great economic uncertainty here in the UK.
It has always been my firm belief that museums have a central role to play in society. And, in my view, this role becomes even more important in times of economic and social stress. But that’s for a little later in my address to you.
First of all, I’d like to reflect a little on my first year as director of the V&A – and I hope you’ll forgive this personal digression.
I’ve been working in museums for a long time. But one thing makes my current job quite different from anything I’ve done before. I can sum up that one thing like this: I’m the first German citizen ever to run a national British art museum. This makes my job at the V&A a great privilege. But it also presents something of a challenge.
What’s the nature of that challenge?
Well, let’s start with the War…
Now, we all know from that great cultural commentator, Basil Fawlty, that in Britain it is considered impolite to mention the War when Germans are in the room. But the V&A itself mentions the War in its own fabric. There, on the façade, are the marks of the bomb damage caused by the Blitz – caused by my countrymen. And just in case passers-by miss the point, just in case they wonder why that pitting and scarring of the walls has never been repaired, there, literally carved into the stone, is an inscription.
This is what it says:
‘The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the Blitz of the Second World War 1939-1945, and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of war.’
It’s a very British response. Restrained and understated. Assertive, yes – but quietly so. And yet it is hard as a German not to read those words about ‘enemy bombing’ and feel … feel what? Well, certainly some large questions. One question above all: Is one generation not too soon for a director of the V&A born in Germany? We are not yet one lifetime away from the horrors of the War and the Holocaust. Not yet one lifetime away from those 58 days and nights when London was blitzed and 45,000 civilians were killed. As it happens, one of the things we plan to do at the V&A is to start to clear away part of that bomb-damaged façade as we start the re-modelling of the Exhibition Road buildings.
How do you handle this as the first director born in Germany?
To an extent I can see this issue from another perspective. As you know, my last job was in Dresden. Dresden too had its Blitz. Much of the city was reduced to ashes by Allied bombing in 1945. Many thousands of civilians were killed. Part of my job in Dresden was reconstructing and renovating some of the magnificent buildings that were so badly damaged, including Dresden Palace. Dresden still lives with that history. London still lives with that history. The V&A, as I have demonstrated, embodies that history too.
This makes me think hard about the uniqueness of my position and how I can turn it from a challenge into an opportunity because it’s clear to me that I have a twin role to play.
First I am the director of a great British museum with a large international collection, and that is a great opportunity in itself.
I also have the opportunity to be a kind of translator of urgent transnational topics.
What do I mean by that?
Well it’s partly about cultural geography, about the unique position London now occupies on the world stage. London is special now. Probably the only global megalopolis with a genuinely global culture. I’ve lived in London now for 14 months and every day the papers are full of debates over whether or not Britain belongs in Europe. I look around and see that nowhere in Europe is there so much Europe as there already is in London. South Kensington is already as French as Paris. Other parts of London are as Turkish as Istanbul; as Chinese as Beijing; as Pakistani as Islamabad; as Indian as Delhi; as Australian as Sydney; as Brazilian as Rio.
What draws all these diasporas to London?
Yes, it’s banking and finance, it’s schools and universities, it’s horse-racing and football but one of the biggest draws is culture. Where else on earth do you find so many artists and curators, designers and movie directors, musicians and performers of all kinds? From all over the world they come – and why? Because they feel at home in London. There’s no settling-in period. You arrive from the airport. You’re made welcome. You feel at home. After a time you even start to take it for granted but then you remember that nowhere else is quite like this. London, the capital of a global society, a global history and a global culture is still a huge experiment.
If it succeeds, if that great mass of humanity from so many different origins can find ways to live together in peace, finding mutual and common models for the future, then maybe we can also make this happen in other parts of the world.
At the heart of this is something important about identity and about the central role that culture, art, and the history of civilisation can play in building an identity to take us forward into the future.
When I think of this, I think of Sean Rainbird, who now runs the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Until a short time ago, Sean was the first British museum director in Germany – in my hometown, Stuttgart. When Sean and I talk to each other we can hardly catch our breath. So many questions! So many arguments! So much to explore! When I think of this, I also find myself asking if we who inhabit this global culture may not be guilty of ignoring what is going on in our own backyards.
Is there not perhaps something questionable about the way we feel more familiar with Sao Paolo and Shanghai than we do with Marseille, Munich or Manchester? If our children and grandchildren are to enjoy this Europe of cultural differences, than we have to do something about the conservation of our cultural heritage and universal education.
So I have to say: yes, I am grateful, for the privilege of working in the UK, for the chance to learn here; but at the same time to say that I intend to bring to the table the experience and ideas I’ve learned outside these shores. It is surprising how little we still know of one another. How little we make use of the other’s experience. How little advantage we take of the experience that is there to be shared. Working in Britain I am constantly struck by how differently things are done here when compared to Germany.
The arm’s length principle is completely unknown there. Philanthropy plays only a minor and subsidiary role. Management works differently. Collecting is organized in a different way.
I would love to see a European Congress where the different museum traditions could come together to share constructive visions for the future.
Of course, as well the differences, we have many things in common. We all worry about the future, especially now when times are hard. We all worry about the strange blindness of our politicians to the fact that culture is one of the few reliable ways to build social cohesion. We all worry about how we can continue to ensure that our shared cultural heritage continues to be accessible to everyone, not least, to future generations. We all worry about what our museums should look like in the years to come. In times of austerity what should we prioritise to protect for the future? Is it knowledge? Is it the collections? The visitor experience? The staff?
Sooner or later we have to decide what role is appropriate for museums in difficult economic times.
My own view on this is clear.
I believe that museums have begun to neglect some of their traditional functions and tasks. We are in danger of turning into a stage for celebrities and VIPs. Some say this shows that celebrity belongs to everyone and concerns everyone; that celebrity is now part of everyone’s reality and is no longer something attached solely to the privileged few. This may be true – if you believe your job is to distract people from social reality.
I believe museums have to rediscover their social dimension. We have to return to their original ideals. We have to provide consistency and security in a time when so many people’s dreams and values are turning to dust.
What does this mean for the V&A?
One idea I’ve heard is that our priority should be to continue to extend our collections in a conservative, traditional way. By doing so we could hope to secure the V&A’s reputation as an institution that excels through leadership in research and curatorship, preserving, honouring, and investigating the past. And of course, that side of our work must – and will – always remain a key part of what we do.
But the real question for me about the V&A is this: back to the future? Or ahead into the past?
For me the priority has to be the future – which we reach by getting back to our roots. The V&A was founded as a museum for all and this is where we have to return to. My distinguished predecessor, Mark Jones, called the V&A the real ‘palace of the people.’ And I agree wholeheartedly with this. But we have to be clear about who ‘the people’ are – now, in the second decade of the 21st century. Society changes. And as it changes, so we have to change too. The many diasporas that make up modern Britain make it imperative that the V&A is a museum with a marked international outlook.
It was absolutely right, for example, that earlier this year we teamed up with the British Council to send the V&A’s collection of street art to Libya – the first international exhibition there since the revolution that toppled the Gaddaafi regime. Street art flourished in Libya throughout the Gaddaffi years – even though it was savagely repressed by the regime. In a society where the regime did its utmost to ensure that only one voice was heard, street artists risked their liberty to use this fleeting and transitory channel to remind their fellow citizens that other voices still existed. Our exhibition showed artists like Banksy and D*Face alongside works by Libyan street artists such as Naser Al Shibani, Tareq Abu Avena, and Mohammed Ellafi. A powerful and moving dialogue existed between the two groups of art-works. And I was proud that we had enabled this dialogue to take place at the very time Libya is going through the sometimes painful process of building a new and democratic future.
Back to the future for the V&A means the museum involving itself more in product design; in architecture and urbanism; in the digital world and in digital storage. This does not mean that we are suddenly going to stop mounting the kinds of exhibitions put on so successfully by my distinguished predecessors. ut we need to find ways to add ethics to the aesthetics. The V&A started life as a museum with a clear social function – to demonstrate that good design could make life better, not least by producing economic benefits.
The time is ripe to return to that vision, to demonstrate the social dimension of design within a difficult economic context.
Design can change your life, it can actually make it better. But this is not just a matter of an elegant and beautifully designed surface for mass production. We need to understand what goes on beneath that elegant surface too. So I want to put more engineering on the agenda of the museum. I want the V&A to continue to celebrate the creativity of our great designers, but also to celebrate the making that goes into their great creations. Not just ‘created in Britain’ but also ‘made in Britain.’
The founders of the V&A shared a very clear vision of what the museum should be.
A key part of their vision was that it should be proudly utilitarian and entrepreneurial – a place where designers would come to find inspiration. And where their customers would come to have their eyes opened to the ways good design could improve their lives. We need to get back to this vision. The V&A, once again, should be a place that explicitly nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit and plays its part in rebuilding the British economy. This, too, is part of the V&A rediscovering its social dimension. And the public are hungry for this.
The exhibition we staged last year, ‘The Power of Making’, drew 320,000 visitors – an astonishing number. The Power of Making sent us a very clear signal and set us a very clear task.
I also want the V&A to be a forum – for controversy, for constructive debate on contemporary questions, a place where we design the future as well as investigate the past. We have to loosen up a bit. The V&A is quite a conservative institution and right now it needs to rediscover its radical roots: to become once again a museum for everyone, engaging as many different groups in society as possible.
I believe that cultural institutions have to demonstrate in the way we engage with the public, and with other cultural institutions, things that are slipping from our grasp elsewhere in society. Things such as solidarity, things such as partnership.
Solidarity is a bit of an old-fashioned word these days. But it’s the glue that holds us together. Surely it is one of the tasks of the V&A as a national museum to be there for other museums.
So I want to build on the strong foundations already laid here by my predecessors. I want to involve the V&A in further co-operative initiatives such as those already under way in Sheffield and Dundee. V&A Dundee is a real pointer to the future.
It’s an independent institution which we contribute to with expertise and our collections. It’s underpinned by Design Dundee Ltd, a partnership between the V&A, the universities of Dundee and Abertay Dundee, and with Dundee City Council and Scottish Enterprise. This is the kind of model I want to see the V&A expanding on in new partnerships with other cultural institutions around the globe.
There is no point at all in trying to create competitive relations in the cultural world. Public interest in museums is extremely high. Let’s build on that together.
And I don’t mean just the partnerships that make headlines – like the exhibition we’re planning jointly with the Royal Opera House. I’m also talking about sharing research projects and expertise in conservation; and about much more mundane things too, such as storage and logistics, where we can all see ways to cut costs.
And this is important. We spend public money. We are accountable to the public, who expect, rightly, that we will use their money as frugally as though it were our own. Public museums must be models of efficient public sector management. That, too, is part of rediscovering our social dimension in a time of austerity.
CONCLUSION: This is important.
Just last week there was an outcry about the inexplicable decision to leave out key subjects from the so-called English Baccalaureate – subjects including art, design, and technology. After more than a century and a half of the existence of a museum like the V&A, dedicated to art and design, you might have thought that the battle to put these subjects at the centre of British culture had been won. It turns out it hasn’t – at least not in England (I’m glad to see that the government here in Scotland is following a different path). The UK is one of the greatest creative nations in the world – remember the Olympics this summer? But if art, design, music, drama and dance are squeezed to the edges of the curriculum, Britain’s creative economy could be destroyed within a generation.
We cannot let this happen. Now, more than ever, it’s time for museums to take up the cause once again. It’s time for us to rediscover our social dimension.