V&A must reflect diversity of our society - Museums Association

V&A must reflect diversity of our society

We want to immerse people in our collection
Profile image for Gus Casely-Hayford
Gus Casely-Hayford

At the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), we have taken the conundrum of losing our old and much-loved collections centre at Blythe House and used it to ask some questions about how we might reanimate our collections for new audiences. And so we are creating a new kind of collections centre, V&A East Storehouse at Here East, in Stratford, east London – a space that will revolutionise access to our collections by providing an unprecedented platform from which to tell new stories of theatre, performance, art and design. 

When completed in 2024, it will be a space to display 250,000 objects, 1,000 archives and 350,000 books, in a single building designed by architect Liz Diller. With its open central space, and glass balustrades and floor, you will feel as if you have literally been immersed into the collection. We would like it to be a space that is loved by the academic and museum communities, but we also want the people of east London, particularly the young, to feel that this is a place that they can use and be comfortable in.

The surrounding boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest are economically, culturally and socially diverse. About 45,000 of the 1.2 million residents work in these areas’ thriving creative industries, but the diversity of the boroughs is not reflected in that workforce. As the fastest-growing sector of the UK’s economy, the creative industries offer myriad job opportunities, yet for the sector to fulfil its purpose to serve the public – to uplift, inspire and transform thinking and opportunity – we must reflect the diversity of our society in all programmes, audiences and teams.

Making and creativity are valuable tools for personal and collective agency; from voicing and influencing opinions through creativity to addressing the major issues of our time through design. We are working with our communities to address this inequity and create change by giving over space to engage with objects, creative practice and making. 

And as a way of introducing our two new sites – the V&A East Storehouse and V&A East Museum – to new audiences, I have begun to tour schools in Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest. This feels particularly important now because of a reduction in the provision of creative education, lost schooling due to the pandemic and a 40% fall in GCSE arts entries in the past decade. There has never been a more important time to engage young people with the creative industries.

As a result, we have devised a tour where we take museum objects out into schools and colleges for a series of workshops, assembly talks and handling sessions. These items have not been acquired specifically for touring, but are actual objects from the V&A’s collection. We feel that this is giving these world-class objects back to the communities for which they are, ultimately, held in trust. We hope this will give local young people the chance to experience museum objects up close, learn about the stories behind them and about the careers and skills available to them in the museum sector – to inspire the next generation and future workforce.

My early museum memories were of distance and barriers. We want to change that by building an environment in which we can expose young people to truly exceptional things, giving them the knowledge and skills to learn about context, tradition and technique, wherever possible, through hands-on contact. We want to build connections across geography and time, and perhaps inspire them in their own practice to use this vast open sourcebook as a catalyst for their dreams.

Gus Casely-Hayford is the director of the V&A East

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