These are challenging times for all cultural institutions, not least for the Victoria & Albert Museum and for its director Tristram Hunt. The museum was riding high at the start of 2020 with strikingly successful exhibitions, record attendances and the ongoing realisation of the ambitious plans put in place by Martin Roth, Hunt’s predecessor – with branch museums in Shenzhen, in Dundee, and in East London, where a new museum will open together with a state-of-the-art Collections and Research Centre. But now, with a ten million pound deficit, no one can doubt that in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, staffing cuts will have to be made. The axe has already fallen on jobs in Retail, Conservation, and Collections Management. But, taking necessary cuts as a justification, Hunt has plans to reconfigure the V&A’s curatorial departments in a schema that appears ideological rather than practical – and without any staff consultation.
Background is important here. Since the 1890s the Victoria and Albert Museum has been organised into departments arranged under materials such as ceramics or metal, or genres like sculpture, furniture or textile. In 2001 these departments were partly amalgamated – Furniture, Textiles & Fashion; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass; and Word & Image (taking in painting, work on paper, the National Art Library and the Archive of Art and Design). The Asian Department, created in 2001, is a successful anomaly, bringing together the vast holdings of Indian and South East Asian and East Asian material and, in 2002, incorporating the Middle East whose objects had previously been divided among the material-based departments. Theatre and Performance is also cross-disciplinary, the responsibility of the V&A since 1974, coming into the museum in 2007, when the Theatre Museum closed. In 2015 Martin Roth created the Design, Architecture and Digital Department which largely focuses on global contemporary collecting in collaboration with other departments.