Hunt has hands full at V&A

The ex-MP becomes director as the museum develops new sites in east London, Scotland and China. Caroline Parry reports on the challenges Tristram Hunt is facing
Caroline Parry
Tristram Hunt, who started work as the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) last month, will join the London institution at a crucial time. With an ambitious growth and redevelopment plan already in place, he will be expected to hit the ground running. He will also have to address issues such as a recent fall in visitor numbers at the South Kensington site.

The surprise appointment of the historian-turned-MP, who has represented Stoke-on-Trent for the past seven years, has received a mixed reception from the sector.

Some have pointed to his lack of experience when it comes to running a major cultural institution. But others have drawn parallels between Hunt and Neil MacGregor, who prior to being appointed director of the National Gallery, in London, was a university lecturer. He went on to become a celebrated director of the British Museum.

Ed Vaizey, the former minister for culture, communications and creative industries, and the MP for Didcot and Wantage, describes Hunt as “an excellent choice” – specifically because he is an outsider. “It’s sometimes a good thing to select someone who does not entirely come from the sector, and in this case, I think it is,” he says.

New direction

A veteran museum sector source, who does not want to be named, says: “[Hunt’s appointment] suggests the trustees were looking for a director to take the institution in a different direction. It has been fantastically successful at putting on very popular blockbuster exhibitions – it is probably the best in the world – but now there is pressure to keep doing even better.

“There is also the expansion of the museum and several major projects, including V&A East and the V&A Museum of Design Dundee. There are suggestions that there is simply too much happening all at the same time. Hunt will need to address that.”

While the V&A is not alone in suffering a dip in visitor numbers – it was a pattern repeated at many of England’s national museums as a result of terrorism fears, a fall in leisure tourists and fewer blockbuster exhibitions – it was 12% behind its target in the first three months of 2016, according to the minutes from its trustees’ meetings.

The lack of a blockbuster exhibitions was cited as the key reason, with figures said to be in line with similar years. That said, the V&A responded by boosting marketing for You Say You Want a Revolution (10 September 2016–26 February), an exhibition that explored the impact of the 1960s through music and performance, as well as film, design and fashion.

With the £49m extension and new entrance to be finished this year at South Kensington, the V&A is also embarking on a significant redevelopment of the Museum of Childhood, in east London, as well as the new V&A Museum of Design Dundee, which is opening in 2018. There is also the development of V&A East at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, due to open in 2022. Billed as a museum “for the digital age”, V&A East will be the biggest museum to open in the UK for 100 years and will cover nearly 1,700 sq m over seven floors.

As well as exhibition space, the new venue will provide storage for the V&A’s vast collections, including those in Blythe House, in west London, a building that the government is selling.

Meanwhile, outgoing director Martin Roth announced plans to “revive” the V&A’s circulation department in his acceptance speech when the museum won the Art Fund Museum of the Year prize last July.

The department, which closed in 1976, worked with regional museums, galleries and art colleges to share the V&A’s design collection. While further details have yet to be announced, Roth promised it would work to “recirculate” its collections far beyond its usual partners.

Extending success

With so many local authority museums outside the capital struggling, the museum sector source believes the V&A needs to do more to extend its successes beyond London, something he believes Hunt will understand.

“His eyes are open to what is happening in the rest of the country and he is smart enough to realise there are important things to learn here. He will be more sympathetic than some other national directors have been.”

But with so much development already at the planning stage, Hunt has much work to do bringing focus to plans already on the table, adds the source.

Vaizey says: “The V&A is growing, and there will be significant management challenges. I think Hunt is well placed to give the new V&A a clear identity – particularly its presence outside of central London.”

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