Some 18 months ago, I exchanged the landscape of politics for the directorship of the world’s leading museum of art, design and performance – the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It’s a true privilege to lead this wonderful institution: a world-class collection; a centre of excellence for curatorship, conservation and research; a place for brilliant and thought-provoking exhibitions; a knowledge bank of creativity; and a natural home for art and design education.
We’re just one of an estimated 2,500 museums in the UK – from the independent to the national. The extraordinary importance of these dynamic and high-functioning institutions has never been greater. By studying peoples, cultures and societies, museums explore difference, exchange and interaction – we are, above all, places for civic inquiry and social purpose.
The V&A certainly fits this pattern. Right across our growing family of museums and galleries – from Shenzhen to Bethnal Green – the V&A promotes the designed world to the widest possible audience, with a response that is at once local, national and global.
At home, we welcomed almost 4.5 million visitors across our sites for the first time in our history – a rise of 26 per cent on the previous year. Our Learning team worked with almost 70,000 students this past year, with 47 per cent from BAME backgrounds. And plans are progressing for V&A East in Stratford’s Olympic Park – an opportunity to put more of our collections on display and engage with new communities.
But as a national museum, we hold a truly national mandate. Last year, we lent our collection to over 240 UK venues; our DesignLab Nation initiative is supporting the teaching of the relaunched Design & Technology GCSE nationwide; and on September 15, V&A Dundee will become Scotland’s first design museum.
We also understand the crucial – and growing – importance of international engagement. Last year, over 1,000 objects were loaned to 110 venues worldwide. Over four million people have now seen V&A touring exhibitions over the last five years. The V&A is a pillar of British soft power. We reach out to global partners; build reciprocity and trust; and provide an innovative, and often refreshingly different, sense of contemporary Britain.
So, from the national to the global, the UK’s museums have vital roles to play: broadening access to art and culture; deepening regional connections; championing culture-led regeneration; preserving our heritage; reaching out to the next generation; strengthening educational outreach; enhancing digital capabilities; or pushing for greater civic responsibility.
Above the V&A’s original Victorian entrance is inscribed the maxim: “Better it is to get wisdom than gold”. Let’s keep offering wisdom, while bringing in a bit of gold.