The extension of the furlough scheme has brought a reprieve for some staff at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) whose roles had been at risk.
The museum is in the final phase of a six-month restructure, and a consultation is currently underway on plans to cut a number of roles across its collections division and simplify the structure of some curatorial teams. The proposal could see a number of departments based on material specialisms merged to create teams organised around chronology or geography.
But following confirmation that the Job Retention Scheme is to be extended until the end of September, the V&A announced this week that all 30 staff at the National Art Library (NAL) and Theatre & Performance archive will stay on in their roles.
The museum is planning to review NAL services with a view to merging the library, along with the V&A’s registry and archives, under the V&A Research Institute, creating a single, integrated research and information directorate. As a result, the library will remain closed until December 2021, offering a digital service during that period. New proposals for the structure of the NAL will follow once the review has been completed.
V&A director Tristram Hunt said: “2020 has been devastating for the whole cultural sector, and at a time when our doors remain closed and recovery appears far from reach, the swell of public backing for national collections and cultural spaces like the National Art Library speaks volumes.”
Loss of expertise
Around 20% of curatorial roles and 10% of conservation roles are still at risk in this phase.
Some current and former V&A staff have told of their fears of a “brain drain” at the institution, questioning how it will maintain the quality of its programming while losing so many curatorial and conservation staff.
Eleanor Hall, who was made redundant from a role in visitor experience and preventative conservation in February and was a union rep, told Museums Journal that curatorial department were “losing figureheads” – longstanding, knowledgeable staff who could not be easily replaced – and redundancy decisions had been taken by executive staff who “do not understand what it takes to do those jobs”.
“It’s uncertain what will be left with at the end with all the skills and knowledge we’re about to lose,” she said. “There’s no promise that this restructure will actually achieve anything. Planning all those blockbusters can only be achieved with the skills and knowledge that we have now.”
Hall said many staff at the museum feel that their concerns are not being listened to, and that there are fears that the institution is “moving towards becoming an attraction”, rather than being valued as a museum. “This restructure will completely change the dynamic of the museum,” she said.
Hall said she was also concerned about the pressure that will be placed on remaining staff after the restructure, after Hunt's comments to the Art Newspaper that “curators will be more stretched”.
“They are already stretched with the turnaround that we have with exhibitions,” she said. Hall added that there was a feeling that staff have not had enough support through the difficult restructure period, and that process had not been “as transparent as it should be”.
Hall’s concerns were echoed by another staff member who wished to remain anonymous.
Hall said: “We have outlined the risk of significant 'brain drain' due to the loss of jobs to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and ministers have shown little concern for the plight of our members, again a massive failing from the government to even appear to care about the restructure of their museums.”
In response, a V&A spokeswoman said: “The loss of any V&A colleague is devastating for us all and cuts particularly deep after the turmoil of the past year. We have taken steps to ensure the process is as transparent as possible, being clear from the outset that the review would encompass all parts of the museum.”
She said reports that affected staff had been kept in the dark about the curatorial cuts were untrue, saying that a scheduled meeting with staff was brought forward after “inaccurate” confidential information about the proposals was leaked to the media.
She said: “Staff have been updated regularly at all-staff meetings about the review process, and curatorial were given a clear timeline for the proposals being shared at the beginning of 2021.”
Responding to concerns about the loss of skills and knowledge, the spokeswoman said the restructure had been planned by senior staff with many years of curatorial and conservation expertise. She said: “Before putting proposals to staff, we undertook discussions with various experts and advisers in the sector both in the UK and internationally, looking to benchmark this approach against other leading institutions.
“The proposed changes will simplify department structures, retaining curatorial and conservation expertise and specialisms across all key material types.”
The spokeswoman said the institution had taken a number of steps to support staff through the process, saying: “We appreciate that this time of uncertainty and our staff are our number one priority. All staff affected by proposed changes have been encouraged to speak directly with their division director, head of department and/or HR.”
Other support measures include weekly HR surgeries for individuals, confidential support available via the Employee Assistance Programme service, and regular contact with trade unions to ensure they are fully briefed and able to support their members, she said.
However the spokeswoman acknowledged that staff who stay in their roles would need to adapt. “Sadly, even after extensive operational cuts, we are forced to look at how we might work as a smaller, more streamlined organisation. In addition to rethinking how our teams might work together, the proposals seek to create more efficiency in our collections management approach.”
The spokeswoman emphasised that the V&A was not dropping its approach to material specialisms, and each of the four departments in the proposed new structure will be led by a V&A keeper with material expertise appropriate to that team. Addressing concerns about the future of the National Theatre & Performance Collection, she said the theatre galleries and collection would remain intact and be unaffected by the proposals
She said: “Despite emergency support from government, the V&A is facing a £10m annual deficit, and with deep regret, we have been forced to explore all routes to reduce costs across the museum in order to protect our future.
“The proposed changes relate to the structure of the V&A’s dedicated curatorial and archive teams, and our priority is consulting openly and meaningfully with our staff and trade union colleagues on these proposals and supporting our staff community through this difficult process.”
The consultation on the current phase of the restructure ends on 31 March. The museum hopes to reopen to the public in late May following the current lockdown.