A fragment of the Robin Hood Gardens council housing estate currently on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale

V&A hits back at criticism of council housing installation

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 06.06.2018
Tristram Hunt rejects view that museums should be “vehicles for social justice”
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) director Tristram Hunt has hit back at the “keyboard warriors and ‘art-wash’ agitators” who have criticised the museum’s decision to display a section of the demolished Robin Hood Gardens council estate at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.

The three-storey fragment of façade was salvaged by the museum before the social housing complex in Poplar, east London, was torn down in 2017. But campaigners have slammed the installation and accused the museum of complicity in the social cleansing and gentrification of London. A spoof ad appeared on the London Underground last week purporting to promote the museum's "prole zoo" exhibition.

The ad bore the caption: "The last working class person in London is to be displayed in a reconstruction of its natural environment in this exciting new immersive exhibition by the Victoria & Albert Museum."

Writing for the Art Newspaper, Hunt said: “Leaving aside the new social housing planned for the site or the constructive role that cultural institutions can have in promoting much-needed urban regeneration, behind this critique is the increasingly popular conviction that not only can museums not be neutral sites, but that they also have a duty to be vehicles for social justice.

“Rather than chronicling, challenging and interpreting, we should be organising demonstrations and signing petitions. I am not so sure. I see the role of the museum not as a political force, but as a civic exchange: curating shared space for unsafe ideas. And in an era of absolutist, righteous identity politics, these places for pluralism are more important than ever.”

A £300m housing development is being built to replace Robin Hood Gardens and will contain 1,575 new homes. According to the Swan Housing Association, which is developing the complex, more than 50% of the properties will be categorised as affordable housing, with up to 550 of those available for social rent.

Robin Hood Gardens was designed by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in the 1970s and considered a significant example of New Brutalism. Most of the estate’s residents were in favour of its demolition, although architects and heritage bodies led a high profile campaign to preserve it.


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09.06.2018, 20:53
The right and centre right wont have to worry about Corbyn and the left if the London left are wasting their time attacking Aunt Sallies.

The developers didn't demolish this housing estate for the benefit of the V&A's temporary exhibitions programme nor was it a heritage fig leaf. It is sad when historic buildings are knocked down but I wouldNT be surprised if it was after years of neglect and now it is cheaper to demolish and build anew. It happens across the country all the time and has done since the First World War. Saying that I expect some 17th century commentator probably described the work of Wren after the Great Fire of London as gentrification and criticized the social cleansing of Pudding Lane.

Malcolm J Watkins
Director, Heritage Matters
07.06.2018, 10:58
How surprising! Tristram Hunt, a former politician, actually arguing against museums as political tools.
It is the place of museums to collect, protect and open people's experiences to 'stuff'. Once museums start taking sides in political squabbling, they have automatically created 'enemies' who oppose the side they have taken. We are guardians of evidence, not managers of social change, even if (as I have always trusted) change is brought about by our activities.
I am increasingly alarmed by the enthusiasm with which my successor generations have waved flags for different 'political' viewpoints seeking not simply to reflect them but actively driving them. The causes may well be right but it is not the place of museums is not to espouse them.