Contemporary Art

Tristram Hunt at the V&A: Rediscovering the Spirit of Prince Albert

By Sotheby's

D r Tristram Hunt became Director of the V&A in February 2017 having served as the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central and as the Labour Party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education. In September he will be talking at the Chatsworth festival Art Out Loud about the continuing impact of Prince Albert’s vision and legacy on the V&A. Tracing the genesis of the V&A, from its Victorian roots in the Design School Movement of the 1830s, through the Great Exhibition of 1851, to its establishment in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures, Dr Hunt will discuss the institution’s founding commitment to art, education and industry which continue to define the V&A today. Ahead of the talk, we spoke to him about his role at the V&A and his vision for the museum.


Sotheby’s: The newly opened Exhibition Road Quarter represents a new era for the V&A. Why was it important to develop the existing building? It is a very contemporary solution; does if draw on the historic legacy of the museum and its collection?

Tristram Hunt: The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter is the museum’s biggest architectural project in 100 years, and transforms how visitors enter and experience the museum. At the heart of the vision for this project was the idea of revealing previously unseen aspects of the museum’s historical architecture to the public. The back of the Henry Cole Wing, elaborately decorated in an experimental form of graphic architectural ornament, sgraffito, is now visible for the first time. But this project was also about reviving the spirit of ‘Albertopolis’ and remaining true to the identity of the V&A, which is why, in respect to the rich tradition of ceramics at the V&A, I’m proud that our new Sackler Courtyard is the world’s first public all-porcelain courtyard, paved with 11,000 hand-made tiles, and personally designed by Amanda Levete, inspired by our collections. Their colouring is a lovely nod to our delftware collection.

S: You must have spent considerable time acquainting yourself with the V&A collection. Do you have a favourite object?

TH: That is always the trickiest question. I am torn between Tipu's Tiger and a Spode Dinner Service; between the Thomas A Becket casket and a Turner seascape; between the medieval tapestries and a Wolsey angel. But, as matters currently stand, my favourite object is the set of Lucca della Robbia Roundels depicting the different months of the year hanging in the medieval and renaissance galleries.


S: What do you think is the most important role of the museum today?

TH: I believe very strongly in the capacity of museums to bring joy and happiness; and their duty to educate and challenge. The V&A has never been a fine art gallery which has sought to distance itself from the world; it has always sought to engage with the world as it finds it - and use art and design to interpret, interrogate and contextualise the present. “Collections and public monuments are the true teachers of a free people,” wrote one of Prince Albert’s advisers, Gottfried Semper. “They are not merely the teachers of practical exercises, but more importantly the schools of public taste.” And as another German, my esteemed predecessor, the late Martin Roth used to say, “the V&A’s curators are keepers of the future as well as the past”.

S: The V&A is underpinned by a strong programme of education; with artist residencies, the V&A Learning Academy and the talks from leading creative practitioners. What is the importance of these initiatives to an institution like the V&A?

TH: The V&A’s first director, Sir Henry Cole, said the museum should be ‘a schoolroom for everyone’. His vision was that the V&A could support the development of British design by placing learning and instruction firmly at the heart of the institution. Today, we continue to champion the value of object-based learning across the country. Last year, over 350,000 people were involved in our education programmes, with over 100,000 children learning about art, design and performance through the museum. The V&A was the first museum to have a dedicated research department, and we have strong links with the Royal College of Art’s History of Design course. The level of interest in V&A schools initiatives such as Graphic Gathering and Creative Quarter from schools nationally makes clear that there a real appetite and need for learning programmes.

The combination of budget challenges, accountability systems, and parental pressures has put many art and design subjects on the endangered list. All of which is taking place at exactly the moment when we need an education system more attuned to creativity, design, innovation, enterprise and interdisciplinary nimbleness more than ever. That’s why we have used the generous prize money from the Art Fund – following our announcement as 2016 Museum of the Year – to support the teaching of the new Design and Techology GCSE. From this September, beginning in Coventry and Blackburn, we are going to link up with brilliant regional museums, a consortium of secondary schools and local industry and use our skills, collections, and world class educational provision to make a difference. My ambition as director is to ensure that the V&A takes a leadership role in supporting the teaching of design and technology in the state education system.


S: Did you delve in to the archives and history of the museum when you took over?

TH: I’ve loved the V&A collections since I was a young boy. First and foremost, this is what led me to apply for the role of Director: a love for what Asa Briggs used to call 'the wonder of things.' As an historian of Victorian Britain, it was a pleasure to go back to the history of the Great Exhibition, of the Design School Movement of the 1840s, of the East India Company repository and all the founding impulses behind the V&A. And reading the diaries of Henry Cole has been a particular delight. But my first job as the new Director is to listen. Things move fast here. There is a lovely account in Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word & Image's new book on the buildings of the V&A of an American visitor to the museum complaining, in 1875, of the lack of photographs of the building to purchase.  He was told by the sales assistant: "You see, the museum doesn't stand still long enough to be photographed."

S: How did your previous job in politics prepare you for the transition to life as a museum director?

TH: Through my work as MP for Stoke-on-Trent, I worked with Martin Roth and other colleagues here to find a solution to the crisis confronting the Wedgwood Museum, leading to the V&A's ownership of the collection. I supported the British Ceramics Biennial. I founded a Literary Festival alongside Emma Bridgewater, and helped to curate an exhibition at The Potteries Museum entitled Ceramic Empire, exploring the influence of Empire on ceramic designs in Stoke-on-Trent and the colonial trade links which The Potteries developed. That background of seeing how culture and art can transform lives in deprived communities – and being responsive to public taste – is not a bad grounding for this wonderful job.

S: The museum collection spans thousands of years of design, craftsmanship and artistic innovation from ancient artefacts to contemporary objects. How do you see the museum of the future?

TH: We are always seeking to shine a light on our broad and varied collections as well as reflect current issues of the day and explore the questions of the future. Our Rapid Response Collecting is one way we reflect contemporary questions and how the design world helps us to respond to them. The V&A is expanding physically, creating new spaces in China and Dundee, that allow us to share our collections in new ways, explore the different stories our objects and expertise can tell in collaboration with partners in those areas and speak to new audiences.  We also know some people will never visit South Kensington, so our digital programme is there to ensure a global footprint for V&A values and collection access. A modern museum is also a digital museum and we have to keep finding ways to engage new audiences.  


S: There have been some landmark shows at the V&A in recent years — from David Bowie and Kylie Minogue to the record-breaking Alexander McQueen exhibition. What's next?

TH: Blockbuster exhibitions is what this Museum is known for (and we have been doing them since 1852), and our ambitious forthcoming programme is just as exciting and dynamic as ever. In just a few weeks, our new exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics opens to the public in our new Sainsbury Gallery. We are delighted to be working with the Royal Opera House on this immersive exhibition, to take our visitors on a journey through nearly 400 years of Opera, from its origins in late-Renaissance Italy to the present day. In December we are focusing on our family audiences with our exhibition on Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, which will reveal the history and personalities behind these much-loved stories. The V&A already holds a fascinating collection of illustrations by E. H. Shepard, which will be combined with key loans including the original manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh from the Wren Library at Trinity College.

We've also just announced plans for the first major exhibition of 2018, Ocean Liners: Speed & Style. It is the first ever exhibition to explore the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner on an international scale, and will explore all aspects of ship design from ground-breaking engineering, architecture and interiors to the fashion and lifestyle aboard.

And more than exhibitions, we've got ambitious plans for our permanent collections. Today, the V&A cares for one of the most important photography collections in the world. We want to share this remarkable resource with audiences and photography enthusiasts on a global scale, both in person through our new Photography Centre, due to open late next year, and through our commitment to digitising our collections.

S: What can visitors to the Art Out Loud festival expect from your talk at Chatsworth?

TH: Visitors can expect an historical, cultural, aesthetic wanderlust through 160 years of V&A history, followed by discussion and debate about the big issues confronting the contemporary museum – from Brexit to blockbuster exhibitions to opening up the collections.


Tristram Hunt introduced by Ann Treneman, The V&A: Rediscovering the Spirit of Prince Albert in the 21st Century is at Art Out Loud festival on Sunday 24 September at 12pm. You can book tickets here

Art Out Loud runs from 22—24 September 2017 at Chatsworth House, and is proudly sponsored by Sotheby's.

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