The Museum as Multi-dimensional Compass in Time and Geography
The creation of the British Museum in the 1750s was never just about building a collection of exceptional objects, constructing beautiful galleries, or gathering brilliant curators. Our national museum project began as our nation took shape, as the constituent nations that came to represent the United Kingdom established an uneasy national modus operandi. The British Museum represented in its founding aspiration the intellectual instantiation of a new national collective voice and ambition, a desire to showcase and interrogate the possibilities of the burgeoning British Enlightenment and a wider imperial agenda. The new museum recast notions of time and geography with Britain as a global voice, a driver and catalyst. And when in the 1850s a generation of radical innovators looked to rejuvenate that national museum paradigm, their plans were again shaped not just by an aspiration for great buildings and objects, but by an evolving understanding of the Empire and Britain’s role in the changing world. National museums are rarely simply about their contents; they become anchors of new narratives, opportunities to reconsider history and formulate new futures. I have always seen museums as multidimensional compasses with the power to relocate and anchor us in geography and time.
After some years of living in the US, I returned to Britain in 2020 to lockdown and to a nation that had changed profoundly. I came back to be part of a new project, working on the crafting of a new national museum and collections centre: V&A East. It has meant crafting a museum in a moment when time is once again being recast. It has been a strange time to begin a new role in the arts, a time in which I have felt both the vulnerability of the creative industries and appreciated their strength. I have seen that when we have desperately needed it. I have witnessed the unique power of the arts in pulling us together, offering catharsis and inspiration. The arts have rarely, in my memory, felt more important, more useful—and also more contested. It has felt like the right moment to invest in new museum infrastructure, to build a new place of solace and reflection, so that we might interrogate collections, narrative, and our relationship to our pasts and futures.
We have taken the conundrum of losing our old collections centre at Blythe House and have turned it into a proposition that delivers in innovative ways to the needs and opportunities of the moment. We are creating a new kind of collections centre at Here East, a space that will revolutionize access to the V&A’s collection—providing an unprecedented universal and free platform from which to tell new stories, to collaborate on building new histories, to renew historical paradigms—260,000 objects, 900 archives, 360,000 books in a single building, with its open central space, glass balustrades, and glass floor—to allow visitors to physically feel immersed within the body of the collection.
In addition, we will provide the workspaces, tools, and advice needed by visitors to study, interrogate, and make new use of our collections in new ways. This is not just a state-of-the-art institution that will serve artists and scholars; we want to build something that will help to catalyze young ambition and transform the lives of some of the most culturally underserved communities in Europe by focusing upon makers and making in new and important ways. Driven by a timely ambition to inform and inspire and dynamized by the acknowledgment that we do not have all the answers, this will be a shared and collaborative endeavour. With that will naturally come a drive to loosen control of the narrative, to find ways to interrogate and negotiate historical perspectives and narratives with those we serve. As a result, this will force us to reconsider history and our relationship to its construction.
This is an interesting moment when opportunity and need coincide; when the V&A has an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a truly experiential storehouse of art and design and pair it with an experimental, partnership-based gallery and exhibition platform, to create a campus for the imagination, forging a space of account and reconciliation within which we can acknowledge complex and difficult histories, but also negotiate new relationships of equity, empathy, and openness with cultures, communities, artists, and makers of the world.