V&A hits back at criticism of council housing installation

Tristram Hunt rejects view that museums should be “vehicles for social justice”
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
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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