Trouble at the V&A
In a ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ released in 2002, the directors of the British Museum, the Louvre, the State Museums of Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others argued for the value of ‘universal’ museums in Europe and North America as repositories of the world’s heritage.
The declaration’s notion of the universal followed a familiar template. Each of these museums is renowned for its collection of ‘civilisational’ masterpieces. A visitor can start with the ancient worlds of Egypt, Greece and Rome, then follow the path of progress through European history, century by century, up to the present. Art and artefacts from places now variously called the non-European, the non-Western or the Global South are generally excluded from this impressive lineage, and placed instead in the peculiar departmental category of ‘Africa, Oceania and the Americas’. There are local variations – for obvious historical reasons, the British Museum has an Egypt and Sudan department – but the idea of the ‘universal’ museum is structured by a Eurocentric worldview.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is intimately connected to colonial history. Its Asian collections are filled with objects transferred from the India Museum established on Leadenhall Street by the East India Company in 1801. But the V&A has, until now, had a different organisational logic from the ‘universal’ museums. First opened to the public in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures, a by-product of the Great Exhibition, its holdings were organised by material, as sources of learning and innovation for British arts, crafts and industry. In the later Victorian era, the heyday of British imperialism, objects from Asia, Africa and the Americas were stored and displayed alongside objects from Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
It has taken Western museums 150 years to come to terms with the implications of removing the non-West from history. Decades of newspaper editorials, panel discussions, academic books and occupation movements, along with calls for access, repatriation and decolonisation, have led them to think about colonialism’s conceptual legacies, and to build a more diverse range of relationships. The Living and Dying Gallery at the British Museum is now a showcase for the ethnographic collection, which used to be housed separately in the Museum of Mankind. Objects from Aotearoa New Zealand, Rapanui, the Arctic and London are organised thematically, exploring the ways people around the world have managed their health, wellbeing and the loss of life. For the V&A’s innovative Art of the Sikh Kingdom exhibition in 1999, people from British Sikh communities acted as cultural advisers and made up more than 60 per cent of the show’s 115,000 visitors.
‘As the national museum of art, design and performance,’ Tristram Hunt, the museum’s director, has said, ‘the V&A’s unique focus on material specialisms is one of our greatest assets.’ But the museum now plans to address a financial shortfall caused by the pandemic with a radical reorganisation that will, in Hunt’s words, ‘simplify our historic, complex structure’. Jobs will be lost. Curatorial departments will be broken up into regions and periods more along the lines of the ‘universal’ museums. The European and American collections will be divided between three new departments: medieval to late 18th-century, ‘the long 19th century’ and ‘modern and contemporary’. Asia and Africa, meanwhile, will sit together in a single department.
The museum promises that material specialisms will be retained and has announced three new positions in the Africa-Asia department. But Hunt, who has written that ‘to decolonise is to decontextualise’, is in fact furthering decontextualisation by pushing the V&A towards a way of doing things – with periodisation as the primary classification for some collections and geography for others – that the larger museum world has been trying to break down for some time.
Two objects that are currently in the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass department show the limits and liabilities of the proposed reorganisation. They both come from Maqdala (now Amba Mariam) in northern Ethiopia, and ended up in Kensington as a result of Robert Napier’s military expedition against Tewodros II in 1868, which culminated in Tewodros’s death, the destruction of his fortress at Maqdala and rampant looting by British forces. An Ethiopian Orthodox cross in the Whiteley Galleries’ Sacred Silver and Stained Glass rooms, not far from a 16th-century Spanish processional cross or a pair of 17th-century rimmonim from a synagogue in East London, draws religious and historical connections between disparate cultures.
The Maqdala Cup, a sporting trophy commemorating the British victory at Maqdala, was made in Birmingham and presented by Napier to the West Suffolk regiment as a prize in a shooting competition in 1873. Many of Napier’s troops at Maqdala were Indian; Asian as well as African and European histories have a claim on the cup. It’s hard to see what would be gained, but easy to see what would be lost, by filing the cup under a European ‘long 19th century’ and the cross under ‘Africa-Asia’.
Histories of collection, commerce, craft, diplomacy, empire, Enlightenment, industrialisation, slavery and warfare will also be impoverished by the V&A’s proposed reframing of the material world. No matter how much the management speaks of ‘interdisciplinary thinking and collaborative working’, the implied assumption that some collections get their meaning from a historical timeline and others from their place of origin goes against the tide of research and scholarship on colonial collections, which for years has been emphasising entangled global histories while trying to unravel enduring colonial categories. The conceptual restructure, if it goes ahead as planned, will make the museum itself look curiously out of time, out of touch with the world and with its own history. If the planned changes to the V&A are a harbinger of what ‘Global Britain’ will look like, then a parochial, nostalgic future – marked by redundancies of vision as well as personnel – lies ahead.