The Fall of a Great Museum

To someone who has directed museums the press controversy over the Victoria and Albert Museum in London must appear ill-focused and uninformed. “The Victoria and Albert tries to catch up,” proclaims The New York Times, with a tight-lipped photograph of the new director, Mrs. Esteve-Coll. “Culture clash in South Kensington,” reports the Financial Times. “Blowing the dust off the V&A,” says another paper, under four unflattering drawings of Sir Roy Strong, the former director; Mrs. Esteve-Coll, the “present director and opponent of the old order”; Lord Armstrong, the newly appointed chairman of trustees; and Mrs. Thatcher. Since it is generally felt that the controversy has serious implications not only for a once great national institution, but for museums in the United States as well, it may be useful to give some account of the museum and its history, of the problems that confront it, and of the reasons why the staff restructuring imposed upon it will imperil its future usefulness.

The history of the museum goes back to 1852, when a Museum of Ornamental Art was opened at Marlborough House. It was intended to be of use to manufacturers and artisans, and it resulted from the application to problems of industrial design of the eclectic theory that was common in fine arts at the time, which held that the arts of all periods should be made available for study and imitation. The motive behind the museum was commercial, but the curator—his name was J.C. Robinson—was from the first determined that it should contain works bought for intrinsic quality, however inapplicable they might be to industry. At the time the models that sculptors made before undertaking their final work were thought to have more use for schools of design than finished sculptures, and they were among the means by which Robinson infiltrated Italian sculpture into the museum.

The catalyst was the purchase in 1854 of the Gherardini collection of wax sketch-models. It had been offered to the Tuscan government, which thought the price too high, and the French government, which also refused to purchase it. The models were therefore transferred to London, and were installed for a month at Marlborough House

with a view to eliciting from the public and the artists of this country such an expression of opinion as to the value and authenticity of the models, as will justify the purchase or the rejection of the collection by Her Majesty’s Government.

Providentially the collection was bought; it included a real model by Michelangelo and those models which were not by Michelangelo have proved, in our own day, to include a high proportion of the surviving models by Giovanni Bologna. There followed, in 1858, the triumphant purchase of the Gigli-Campana collection, which brought to the museum most of its incomparable series of Donatellos and Luca della Robbias and a host of other important sculptures. The purchase was made with the support of Gladstone, and was the taking-off point for the finest collection of Italian sculpture in any museum outside Italy.

Many of the museum’s most splendid medieval objects were also secured by Robinson at this early time. Posthumously deep gratitude is due to him for his achievement, but that was not the official reaction at the time. The more great works of art arrived at the museum, the more evident did it become that there was conflict between his view of the role of what had by then become the South Kensington Museum and that of Sir Henry Cole, who was in overall charge. Throughout the 1860s Robinson’s purchasing powers were circumscribed, and thereafter matters went from bad to worse. Finally in 1867 the authorities abolished his post. But two years after his dismissal the museum paradoxically acquired the greatest works of art of all, when the Raphael tapestry cartoons were deposited on loan by Queen Victoria. Their significance for industry was nil, but they had an impact on public taste comparable to that of the Elgin marbles a generation earlier.

It is hard to imagine what manufacturers and artisans can conceivably have made of the Renaissance metalwork and Hispano-Moresque dishes shown at Marlborough House, even if we assume, as we are bound to do, that Victorian minds were more selective, more critical, and in sharper focus than our own. But when in 1867 the museum was transferred to a new site at South Kensington some degree of order was introduced into the display. For that and the whole development of the South Kensington scheme we have to thank that inspired administrator Sir Henry Cole. Visitors to the new museum must have been more conscious of that than we are now when Cole’s achievement is, as it were, masked by the façade designed by Sir Aston Webb in 1909.

The construction of the present buildings illustrates very clearly the forces through which the institution has evolved. The first attempt by Aston Webb to combine the buildings put up in the 1860s within a new building was not particularly enterprising, but by the time that his project was carried out a sense of history had supervened. The laying of the foundation stone in 1899 was one of Queen Victoria’s last public appearances, and in the building as it was executed provision was made for a whole series of sculptures that gave it the character of a great national monument. As you walk along the Cromwell Road, the lantern, in the form of an imperial crown, comes into view, and with it the statue of Fame set on the top. Below, in tabernacles, are figures of Sculpture and Architecture, the two arts on which Fame was held to rest. In the middle of the lower part of the façade is a statue of Queen Victoria, and in the center of the doorway immediately beneath stands the Prince Consort, to whose initiative after the Great Exhibition the establishemt of the museum was so largely due.

Flanking Prince Albert are statues of Knowledge on the right and Inspiration on the left, and above them are spandrel reliefs showing the poles between which art could oscillate—above Inspiration, Beauty, and above Knowledge, Truth. Immediately over the doorway is a quotation from Reynolds’s Discourses: “The excellence of every art consists in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.” It relates to the fine not the applied arts, and so does the rest of the façade, for along the front run statues of British sculptors, painters, and architects; the statues of craftsmen are relegated to the relative obscurity of the Exhibition Road.

Within the building, for better or worse, generations of purists have been at work. The early decoration was conceived as a kind of gloss on the works that were exhibited. The collection of ceramics was housed in a gallery plastered with enameled terracotta, and the early medieval objects were shown beneath a mosaic of the Prince Consort, on a bridge which was known as the Prince Consort’s Gallery. No museum can allow itself the luxury of an archaeological approach toward its own galleries, and for that reason almost nothing of the South Court, the main decorative project of the late 1860s, is visible. It was planned as a sort of pantheon, with mosaic portraits of men connected with the arts (most of them were presidents of the Board of Trade), and mosaic figures of artists.

The whole project was masterminded by Sir Henry Cole. It culminated in two frescoes at the ends of the court by Lord Leighton, The Industrial Arts applied to War and The Industrial Arts applied to Peace, one set in Italy and the other in Greece. In the arch above are frescoes executed, with Leighton’s approval, in the 1890s, by W.E.F. Britten, which mark the close of a long erratic search for some means of investing High Renaissance iconography with contemporary significance. There, Britten tells us, we shall find Plutus, the little god of wealth, playing at the side of Irene or Industry, and next comes Fortuna, directing the disposal of wealth, without the conventional blindfold that would have impeded her capacity to do so in a rational way. I believe this is the only painted exposition of the economic theory of laissez faire. It would be easy nowadays to ridicule the program, but as director I derived much satisfaction from these proofs of how confident and how convinced, how extroverted and how optimistic my predecessors were.

As with all such institutions the present of the Victoria and Albert has been to some extent conditioned by its past. It was intended as a popular educational museum serving a large public, and it has preserved this character. But throughout the years, in response to public need, its galleries were progressively transformed. In 1909 it was subdivided into curatorial departments organized on the basis of technique. This had many practical advantages—its acquisition policy became more ambitious and the individual departments, developing, as was natural, at different speeds, gained acceptance as world authorities in their respective fields—but it had one major disadvantage, that the greatest works of art were segregated in departmental galleries.

This segregation remained in force when I first joined the staff in 1938. After the war, however, the system of display was revolutionized by a now forgotten director of near genius, Leigh Ashton, who believed that the language spoken by works of art was universal and self-explanatory. The collections were therefore reorganized and were distributed among primary galleries, where objects of the same date and style in any medium were juxtaposed, and departmental collections of secondary works, which remained in the control of their parent departments. A great deal of the detail of this arrangement would now seem old-fashioned or extemporized (since money even then was short), but when the galleries were completed they provided what must have been incomparably the finest visual introduction to postclassical culture in any museum in the world.

Ashton was succeeded by an excellent director in Trenchard Cox, from whom I personally learned much, and in 1967 I in turn became director. What I took over was a well-run, enthusiastic, flexible staff, and a system of display that could be refined and sometimes radically changed but was manifestly one of great public appeal. I had the benefit as minister of arts of Jennie Lee, the only principled occupant of this difficult post, and of warm support from the Department of Education. A quantity of very successful exhibitions were held, and the attendance figures rose. The education service was developed in a generally satisfactory direction, and the Circulation Department (now abolished) fulfilled an invaluable role in rectifying the imbalance between the works of art available in London and the resources of regional galleries. There were workmanlike plans for the development of a theater museum, which would have run at a profit not a loss, and a serious attempt was being made to strengthen the very weak collections of twentieth-century artifacts throughout the museum. One of my last acquisitions was a room by Frank Lloyd Wright complete with furniture, which was presented with great generosity by Edgar Kaufmann. I erected it with some pride, but it was disassembled by my successor, and has since been stored.

The story of the Victoria and Albert after 1973, when I moved to the British Museum, was not a happy one. Before I left I warned my successor that the museum staff included a number of specialists of high reputation throughout the world, who knew more about their subjects than he knew about the subject with which he was associated. I urged that he should treat them with sympathy and with respect. In an effort to assert authority, however, he ran head on into the staff. What initially were fissures in the confidence that should exist between the staff of a museum and its director rapidly became a gulf that appeared, to members of the curatorial staff, to be unbridgeable.

In one significant respect Sir Roy Strong’s powers exceeded mine, since during Lord Eccles’s tenure of the post of minister of arts between 1970 and 1973, by a process known as devolution, museums were empowered to allocate resources within their total annual grants. At the British Museum, where I then was, this worked very well, since there was a strong administrative staff. At the Victoria and Albert, however, the freedom offered by devolution was differently interpreted, and it was possible to cut back the quite inadequate sums previously available for the maintenance of the building in favor of other activities.

This was the situation when in 1984 the museum ceased to be part of the Department of Education and Science, and was provided with a board of trustees selected by the prime minister. My own experience of trustees, both in London and New York, has been a very happy one. At the British Museum I had twenty-six trustees, most of whom were highly experienced and of great distinction, and who made, in their own fields, a substantial contribution to the running of the museum. The trustees of the Victoria and Albert, however, were ill-chosen, and were, head for head, vastly inferior to the Advisory Council on whose advice I had relied during my own directorship. Whereas the British Museum trustees, though they included a number of former ministers, protected the museum from political pressure from whatever party was in power, the trustees of the Victoria and Albert were conceived from the first as a means of imposing government policy on the museum.

In a letter to one of the trustees who resigned the prime minister refers to it as a “revered institution,” but her first visit to it was paid when I was director, and it left me with the unambiguous impression that she was blind. She was secretary of state for education and science at the time, and one day I was bidden to have sherry with her before lunch. There were two empty bookcases in her office lined with dark green silk. “What are you going to do with those, secretary of state?” I asked. “I was hoping for some ceramics,” she replied. I had three services brought out for her to choose from; two of them were very pretty and one was a conventional Chelsea service with pastel-colored fruit, and that was the one she chose.

As we walked through some of the galleries, my heart sank. That masterpiece of English medieval art, the Clare Chasuble? Not a flicker of response. The Donatello Ascension? A carved marble slab. The great Bernini? Not her cup of tea. There was no simulated interest even in museum education. We went on to the Conservation Department, and there a miracle 2. Not in the interesting or progressive parts, but in a room where two women were sticking pieces of textile together with plastic fixative. She knew and recited the formulas for plastic fixatives, and it was indeed as though she were attached with plastic fixative to the room. I had the greatest difficulty in unsticking her and getting her back to the main entrance. This quite extraordinary lack of comprehension—I can think of no parallel for it even among the many philistines I have escorted around museums—must be bound up with the decision to equip the museum almost twenty years later with a board on which no member had a vestigial knowledge of works of art.

Especially ill-chosen were the chairman, Lord Carrington, who had been foreign secretary and became secretary-general of NATO with his headquarters in Brussels, and the deputy-chairman, Sir Michael Butler, a mandarin from the Foreign Office. A tough, quick-witted, small-scale man, Lord Carrington had no experience of museums and little sympathy with works of art. Initially he supported the director—he explained to me in conversation that Roy Strong’s television personality made any other course impossible—and the rift between the director and the staff rapidly became a rift between the heads of curatorial departments and the board. The principles of political pragmatism described by Carrington in his autobiography, Reflect on Things Past, and applied, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to Rhodesia and other problems, were not applicable to the museum, and resulted in what in effect was a cold war between the staff and the trustees.

The correct course at this stage would have been to appoint a strong professional director, who would reestablish the confidence that had previously existed between the museum administration and the curatorial staff and would effect, without controversy or publicity, the many reforms that were no doubt required. The policy adopted was the opposite. When Strong eventually resigned, in 1987, the candidates on the short list for his post were informed by Butler that “what we want is not ideas but the ability to carry out our policies.” One of them had the honesty to explain the reasons why a museum cannot be directed by trustees, but his statement fell on deaf ears, and the competition resulted (as was inevitable from the terms in which it was conducted) in the appointment of the least qualified candidate, a librarian who had successfully computerized the National Art Library. She was appointed because the trustees were seeking a manager, not a director.

It is a simple fact that museums cannot be directed by trustees. Every notable museum in the United States is administered by a professional director, from whom it derives its character. The three most prominent examples are the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, all of which owe their supremacy to their directors. To claim (as is claimed by the Daily Telegraph executive Andrew Knight in an irresponsible article in the London Spectator) that “in America museum directors are flooding out of their jobs” is totally untrue. Admittedly directing museums is a very special skill; it involves a multifacial relationship with the public, whose interests are paramount, with the museum staff, and with the works of art that people wish to see.

At the British Museum the experiment had been made, under the chairmanship of Lord Eccles, of appointing as director an able manager in the form of Sir John Wolfenden, but he had relatively little impact on the museum as a whole, and on his retirement it was generally acknowledged that only under a professional director could real progress be achieved. The individual departments of the British Museum were more solidly entrenched than any in the Victoria and Albert, but I found them cooperative and helpful and almost without exception they recognized the need to make significant concessions to the vast public that thronged their galleries. They accepted the need for a unified conservation department and for popular exhibition and publication policies. None of this could, however, have been achieved without the charisma of a forcible and open-minded chairman and the wisdom of a supportive and hard-working board.

What indeed were “our policies,” as Butler, speaking as deputy-chairman of the Victoria and Albert, put it? They consisted, it appears, of random notions thrown out by an impatient group of entrepreneurs. The first, and perhaps the most foolish, was to make an architectural survey of the museum building in order to reconstitute it as it appeared in $$$ This was foolish because visitors come to a museum to look at works of art, not at the building in which they are housed. It was, to take a single instance, suggested that one of the greatest Italian sculptures in the collection, the huge Luca della Robbia stemma of King Rene of Anjou, should be dismantled and stored in order to provide a better view of the Victorian restaurant. Aston Webb’s opulent Edwardian galleries are strikingly ill-suited for the showing of works of art, and any system of display imposed upon them involves an element of compromise. Better compromises may be achieved than those which were bequeathed by my predecessor Leigh Ashton to me and by me to my successor. They are ascribed by Andrew Knight to “years of obsessional power by the scholars over the ever scarcer space for their objects,” but the intention behind them was the opposite, to isolate key objects or groups of works of art in such a way that the ordinary visitor could look at and enjoy them. The function of museums is to educate, and at the Victoria and Albert this is achieved through its collections, not through its architecture.

In 1987, having sown the dragon’s teeth, Lord Carrington resigned to become chairman of an auctioneering firm (he is, I believe, the first chairman of the board of a national museum ever to have gone on to such a position in the commercial art world), and he was succeeded by Lord Armstrong, an agile civil servant, whom I knew in earlier days as secretary of the board of directors of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, but who, after his testimony on the government’s behalf in an Australian law court, was associated in the public mind (and therefore in the minds of the museum staff) with the phrase “economical with the truth.” Civil servants do not make good board chairman—in my time the trustee of the British Museum who contributed least to the board’s deliberations was another former secretary of the cabinet, Burke Trend. The reason for this is that they lack the gift of leadership and hold their cards too close to their chest. In Armstrong’s case this was compounded by lack of credibility. On taking over his post, speaking with his Mistress’s voice, he made Thatcherite noises about the museum’s finances, but showed not the smallest comprehension of the character or the significance of the institution he was destined to control.

Three further points demand mention here. The first is that administration by trustees is an expensive process. They require secretaries and an administrative staff to feed them with the stream of paper without which no decision can be reached. At the British Museum, which had from the start been trustee-controlled, there was provision for a more than adequate administrative staff. But at the Victoria and Albert if an administrative cadre was to be created, this could, at a time of stringency, only be effected by reducing the curatorial staff.

The second point is that, in conformity with government policy, the trustees assumed responsibility for the museum building. In my time as director care of the building was vested in the then Ministry of Works, whose record, all things considered, was not discreditable. (The building of the Metropolitan Museum is the property of the City of New York, not of its trustees.) The third point was the issue by the National Audit Office, several weeks before Mrs. Esteve-Coll took over as director, of a report claiming that the nonexhibited holdings of the museum were inadequately cared for and were deteriorating. From the information I have received this report appears to have been much exaggerated. When such criticisms are made, however, it is incumbent on the board of a museum to appear to treat them seriously. Attention therefore centered on what was called the “management” of the collections. The buck of reconciling all these factors was passed to the trustees’ nominee as director, Mrs. Esteve-Coll.

There is excellent precedent for appointing a woman as director: one of the most efficient and successful is Anne d’Harnoncourt, the director of the Philadelphia Musuem of Art. I do not know Mrs. Esteve-Coll personally, but she is clearly in an altogether different and much inferior class. She does, however, have her defenders who say that she likes works of art and Sir Michael Butler’s assurance that, at least to her employers, she is “very nice.” But her interviews and policies reveal her as a relentless vulgarizer. It would be generally conceded that there is a point beneath which no museum should debase itself. But not by Mrs. Esteve-Coll, who, with a crude publicity campaign and exhibitions like that of the collection of Elton John, has added a new meaning to the phrase, “She stoops to conquer.”

It is important to distinguish between Mrs. Esteve-Coll’s plans for the museum and their implementation. The message of the document submitted by her last January to the trustees (I have read it in the original and no such simplistic or imperfectly literate a report would have been tolerated by any board with which I have been associated) is that “housekeeping (i.e. the receiving, documenting, moving, storing and conserving of works of art)” should be divorced from what is described as scholarship. The concept of housekeeping (or housekeeping management, as Lord Armstrong terms it in an apologia in the London Times) includes the reception of objects (which in museums is invariably entrusted to a registry), documentation (which can be established only by the curatorial staff), the moving of objects (a major Chinese sculpture was indeed dropped under the present regime for lack of proper supervision), the storing of objects, and their conservation (which cannot be undertaken without reciprocal agreement between individual specialists on the curatorial and conservation staffs). The new “housekeeping” posts would, in Mrs. Esteve-Coll’s report, be compensated by the amalgamation of curatorial departments and a reduction in curatorial posts. In this scheme of things ceramics, metalwork, and sculpture would be directed by a single senior officer, and textiles, furniture, and interior design would be similarly linked.

Since I left the Victoria and Albert in 1973 I have worked in two museums that suffered from a similar situation. At the British Museum the important collection of Renaissance and post-Renaissance artifacts in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities was the preserve of a single member of the departmental staff, whose knowledge was naturally spread very thin. When as director I required the precise information that would have been readily available in the Victoria and Albert, there was no means by which this could be obtained. Similarly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts would have clearer policies if the two fields were segregated.

The antithesis to “housekeeping” in Mrs. Esteve-Coll’s fantasy world is “scholarship,” which will be catered for in a research department where according to one of her interviews “young scholars at the beginning of their careers can metaphorically sit at the feet of great scholars.” Metaphorically seated scholars merit a cartoon by Beerbohm. Nowadays the term “scholarship” is very loosely used. In a museum context it means knowledge, and knowledge is the product of experience, of a lifetime of involvement with some specific category of works of art. It implies an understanding of technique, and for this reason specialists in furniture or ceramics or silver or textiles are not interchangeable. The pursuit of knowledge can lead into blind alleys that are of no public benefit, and if it does so it must be discouraged. As any museum director will confirm, the best scholars are not necessarily the best administrators. Faced with this problem at the British Museum I created a number of posts that removed them from the administrative mainstream of each department but allowed them to continue with their almost always useful work. The result was to speed up the promotion of able junior staff. To divide research from the normal work of curatorial departments and to inhibit access of the curatorial department to the works of art of which they are in charge are recipes for visual and intellectual sterility.

The implementation of Mrs. Esteve-Coll’s proposals have been described so heavily in the press that I need do no more than touch upon them here. Her paper was approved by her trustees after a quarter of an hour’s perusal, and she then went ahead to dismiss eight senior members of the staff. When you dismiss members of a museum staff, you rid yourself not only of their personalities but of the knowledge they have accumulated. If the dismissals are persisted in, the Victoria and Albert will be more ignorant than at any other period in this century. In Mrs. Esteve-Coll’s mind (according to her interviews) dismissal would be compensated by cash payments. But the plain fact is that many dismissed members of the staff could, for decades, have been earning larger sums from dealers and auction rooms than they were paid by the museum. What had kept them in their posts was the concept of public service. To a director whose span of public service can be measured in months not decades this factor may appear of no importance, but to many people it must seem disgraceful that disinterested service should be rewarded in this way.

What of the future? In any national museum attendance figures are important because they form the acid test of whether or not the museum is doing a decent job. The present attendance figure is under a million, but in the early 1970s it was more than twice this figure. It was high because the museum was based on the assumption that the reason people visit museums is to look at works of art. We are told by apologists for present policies that the world has changed, but great works of art are immutable, and so is the wish of vast numbers of people to look at them. No doubt radical changes are needed in display and no doubt labeling should follow the pattern of some of the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum and become less academic and more popular.

The first task of the Victoria and Albert Museum, therefore, is to recapture the visitors it once had. They have not died off; they have simply stopped visiting a shoddy, ill-run museum. The articulation of exhibits and their presentation to the public is a difficult task; it presupposes a knowledge of the collections that a librarian of two years’ standing cannot be expected to possess. A professional director familiar with the collections has therefore to be appointed, and given authority by a judicious body of trustees to relaunch the museum. No sane board of trustees could in future entrust Mrs. Esteve-Coll with the control of the staff, and she will, we may hope, be encouraged to resign. The deputy chairman of trustees by whom she was appointed and the chairman, Lord Armstrong, can be of no further service to the museum, and should be replaced by a chairman with some marketing experience and some experience of the running of responsible museum boards. The trouble with the museum’s present policies—jiving in front of the Raphael cartoons, Saatchi advertisements in the subway, sales of commercial knitwear from Habitat in the museum galleries—is that they inhibit serious visitors to the museum.

The London public is, in my experience, less demanding, less educated, and less educable than the public in New York, but it is still more intelligent and more critical than present policies suggest. The single beneficial outcome of the whole unhappy controversy is likely to be the surprising discovery that the museum is an international not a domestic institution, which is ultimately answerable, not to a local body of trustees, but to scholarly opinion throughout the world. When universities are starved of funds, there is no means by which members of the public can assess the consequences. But when a vast museum with an international reputation is reduced to an object of ridicule, the result is all too evident. To repair the damage and get the museum once more into decent working order some form of special grant may be required, but it will be justified because in its future not only the fate of a magnificent collection, but national self-respect is inescapably involved.


The Poor Curator November 9, 1989

Training the Artist August 17, 1989