Diary

Nicholas Penny

‘An ace caff with quite a good museum attached’. Some of the stuff there is quite sexy too, the advertisements for the V & A suggested. ‘We have to learn to be more popular without trivialising,’ says the Director. With whom? Certainly not foreign visitors, who found the advertisements very bizarre. Some may suppose that they were designed to captivate the man who enjoys the pin-up in his tabloid paper over a cuppa or a pint in a smoky café or pub, but he might have found the glib parody of Surrealism bewildering – the Indian fertility goddess blended with the model’s busty profile, the varnished nails on the ivory nude. The advertisements were addressing younger and more sophisticated males for whom a caff is as quaint as a cloth cap, reassuring them that it is smart to be philistine if you make smug jokes about it.

Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, the Director, declares that the slogan is ‘absolutely magnificent’ because it is ‘targeted at a particular age group (18-35) and it certainly has increased the awareness of the museum in that age-group.’ Meanwhile, however, Charles Mill, the V & A’s Marketing Manager, told the trade magazine Campaign that the publicity was ‘a bit élitist’. He wanted the posters talked about in wine bars. ‘I believe,’ the Director told the press, ‘we must communicate not just with those who live in South Kensington or happen to live in the South-East.’ Yet £200,000 of her budget went on these ‘ace caff’ advertisements displayed within London only. Mr Mills has also founded the Victoria & Albert Museum Club, which enables people who live in South Kensington to treat the Museum as an ace wine bar. Consider the help that the £200,000 could give to organisers of school visits from outside London, or to making the labels more informative, or to fixing the roof.

Mr Mills was said to have approached seven leading agencies over the Museum’s advertising campaign, but Maurice Saatchi, who is one of the Trustees of the Museum (appointed by the Government), intervened and insisted on the contract going to his agency Saatchi and Saatchi. Mr Mills did not ‘confirm or deny’ this story. The Chairman of the Trustees, Lord Armstrong, has, however, denied it; or at least he has assured the House of Lords, in answer to a question raised by Lord Annan, that ‘Mr Saatchi takes no part in the arrangements of the contracts or in arrangements made under it’ – whatever ‘it’ may be. Even if Mr Saatchi kept his firm’s fees low, which presumably he did not if he took no part in the arrangements, everyone who understands PR can see that this advertising campaign, which has humiliated one of the greatest educational institutions in Britain, has generated publicity for Saatchi and Saatchi.

This is not the only obvious irregularity in the recent management of the V & A’s affairs. The new crucial senior position of ‘Assistant Director (Administration)’ was never advertised. This is against all Civil Service rules, which have conventionally been observed in the V & A. Moreover, the Trustees were assured that it would be advertised. The Museum has also recently allowed itself to be used to provide publicity for Sothebys, who staged a preview there of Elton John’s collection of bric-à-brac; for the Sock Shop and for Burberrys. ‘We,’ Lord Armstrong told the Lords in defence of these arrangements, ‘are the National Museum of contemporary design. We take pride in having artefacts of contemporary design in textiles, ceramics, metalwork and in other parts of the Museum. I believe that it is wholly within the Museum’s terms of reference that it should have exhibitions which enable us to show the best of contemporary design.’ In like manner one might argue that the universities are for educating people and so it is right and proper that people should be able to buy a degree there. Elton John’s collection, the Sock Shop and Burberrys were not carefully selected by expert curators as most worthy of special exhibitions. The favour was paid for.

It is frightening to think that a former Secretary of the Cabinet may not know how essential for both efficiency and fairness are the traditional procedures for appointments to public positions such as that of Assistant Director of the V & A; frightening that he has no sense of the importance of disinterested trusteeship; frightening that he does not understand how the integrity of educational institutions depends on the avoidance of certain types of marketing. Frightening, but no longer surprising. We would hardly be surprised now to hear child labour being advocated by senior statesmen as an enterprising way of replacing public funding for orphanages.

Not long after £200,000 had been spent in convincing the young London male on his way to the wine bar that philistinism is smart and Saatchi and Saatchi are brilliant, the Director was scanning the budget for £300,000 – the sum needed for redundancy payments which would enable her to get rid of some of the senior curators in the Museum. The money was ‘found’ in the 1988-1989 Buildings Grant, some of which had, conveniently, not been spent at the end of the year. Suspicion is aroused by the repeated protestations in the House of Lords Debate that it is quite normal to be underspent in this way. If there is nothing fishy about this diversion of money earmarked for the desperate needs of the fabric, why did the Director inform the Observer on 12 February that it came from ‘unspent Exchequer money’? Elsewhere she has said: ‘We have got to be able to communicate much more directly with people. One can only put at the most two or three themes across in a gallery or a display and those two or three themes have got to be instantly understandable and accessible.’ Perhaps her economy with the truth over the use of public funds is based on a similarly condescending estimate of the public’s comprehension, as well as being inspired by her Chairman’s taste for secrecy.

‘Direct communication’ is precisely what the Director and her Chairman have avoided with the Trustees as well as with the Museum staff. The drastic ‘restructuring’ plan for the Museum was not circulated in advance to the Trustees but ‘tabled’ at their meeting. One or two Trustees protested and so they were given 15 (in some accounts, 30) minutes to read it. The document did not admit that it was proposed to rid the Museum of some of the most senior curators. It merely mentioned that ‘implications’ of the plans – that is to say, consequences for employment – would be ‘discussed’ with – that is to say, explained to – ‘members of the curatorial staff’, so that they can be ‘placed successfully in the new developing structure or otherwise accommodated’ (my italics). The Trustees, according to Lord Armstrong, ‘were well aware that there would be what is sometimes called “a human cost” ’. If Lord Armstrong can distance himself so effectively from reality with periphrasis and inverted commas, one supposes that he also helps others to do so. It is contagious. According to a paper supplied by the Director to the Lords before the debate, ‘no one was made redundant. Certain individuals whose jobs disappear under the re-organisation were offered voluntary redundancy.’ The ‘certain individuals’ include scholars unrivalled in the world for their knowledge, curators who have given decades of service to the Museum.

Lord Goodman asked Lord Armstrong to explain to the House why it was that nine curators were told that they had two weeks in which to accept redundancy and were not informed what would happen to them if they did not do so. Lord Armstrong replied: ‘For what reason I cannot say, the advice given by those best qualified to give it was that we were not to discuss with those concerned the alternatives at that stage.’ Lord Goodman was not satisfied: ‘My Lords, can the noble Lord say who gave that extraordinary advice?’ Lord Armstrong hesitated. The House held its breath. And then, with great discomfort, he told the truth in plain English. ‘My Lords, the advice came from the Government.’ Baroness Trumpington, a little later in the evening, endeavoured to conceal this indecency. ‘I think he said that the Government gave this advice. In point of fact, the advice was given by the Treasury Personnel Policy Group.’ Are we to believe that the former Secretary of the Cabinet doesn’t recognise the voice of the Government when he hears it?

After this shabby and dishonest treatment of ‘certain individuals’ in her Museum had excited the censure of museum professionals and senior academics all over the world, it was amusing to find the arts correspondent of the Sunday Times (19 February) explaining their consternation by the fact the the Director was, ‘after all, not a member of the Courtauld Institute-trained coterie that binds arts historians and museum curators’. Lord Armstrong told the Lords that he too ‘sometimes’ believes that ‘one of the Director’s problems is that she is not a member of what is sometimes called the Courtauld Mafia.’ It is surprising how little the Chairman of the Trustees – ‘sometimes’ – knows about the art world, for this ‘problem’ is one which the Director shares with the curators she has ‘otherwise accommodated’. She also shares it with Sir Roy Strong (her predecessor), Sir John Pope-Hennessy (Sir Roy’s predecessor), Sir Ernst Gombrich, Professor Michael Jaffé and Denys Sutton, to name only the most eminent among those British art historians who have spoken out against her – it would be hard to imagine any other topic that would have united them.

It is not only the treatment of the senior curators that has not found a single respectable defender among art historians, curators or administrators, but the restructuring plan – or rather sketch, because nothing detailed has been released and it must be suspected that nothing detailed exists. What is clear is that curators are to be severed from responsibility for their collections. It is said that they will be ‘consulted’ about display, acquisitions, disposals, loans and labels, and will be given permission to examine the objects which they are cataloguing. ‘Inspection of objects’, according to the skeleton family-tree of new responsibilities circulated to Museum staff, will be one of the jobs of the Registrar and his ‘object-handling managers’. But the curators who study the objects are the ones who have the motives for careful examination (and who would, for example, spot a fake). ‘Insurance’, ‘loans’, ‘documentation’, ‘cleaning’ are all now the Registrar’s business. But the value of an object varies dramatically with the latest scholarship, of which the Registrar cannot be aware. Such scholarship should also determine the priorities of cleaning and documentation. Only curators will know how serious are exhibitions requesting loans. The curators, greatly reduced in number, will have little time for their catalogues if they are to be fully consulted.

The curators have, until now, always had the controlling hand in the display of the objects in their care. There are admittedly dull arrangements and gloomy galleries, but one needn’t go far to find highly attractive newly-completed rooms – the 19th-century primary collection and the Medieval treasury. The former is a successful revival of Victorian principles of display and the latter the rare case of a highly modern installation which contrives to harmonise with the Museum’s architecture. The stimulating comparisons we are invited to make, and the viewing angles and lighting employed, reflect the curator’s knowledge of the objects quite as much as the labels do. Let designers take over who merely ‘consult’ with curators and the result will be disastrous, as can be seen from so many temporary exhibitions. The theories of ‘communication experts’ which the Director seems to have in mind are also alarming. Galleries should be places where people are able to educate themselves, not places where educators ‘put themes across’. Nor does the public want art to be displayed as if it was food.

What lies behind the restructuring, or rather what the restructuring is disguising, would seem to be a plan to abandon the serious educational purposes of the Museum and open it up to the ‘marketplace’. The ‘certain individuals’ whose jobs happen to have ‘disappeared’ are precisely those people most likely to obstruct such a scheme. It is also feared that there are plans to put some of the Museum’s contents on the market – Lord Armstrong persists in mentioning ‘disposals’. In fact, the National Heritage Act of 1983 has not made it easy for the Trustees to sell the works of art which are in their care, but it will be hard for Lord Armstrong or Mrs Esteve-Coll to convince anyone that they have more worthy intentions.

The official line is that the ‘restructuring’ was evolved after intensive discussion throughout the Museum, but that there was some sort of plan even before the Director was appointed is clear from the account given by Julian Spalding (now Director of the City Art Gallery, Glasgow) of his interview for the post. Sir Michael Butler, Deputy Chairman of the Trustees, told him that they, the Trustees, were looking for someone to carry out their policies. This is not, of course, what Trustees are supposed to do – they are not Directors. However, Sir Michael cannot have had all the Trustees in mind when he said this – surely not Martin Kemp, for instance, who has resigned; surely not Michael Podro; surely not Mary Giles; and there are almost certainly others who retain some measure of independence.

The curators have not always been as concerned as they might have been with providing a larger educational service – which is not to excuse Lord Eccles’s grotesque allegation in the House of Lords that curators have nothing but disdain for the general public, nor to suggest that any extension (or rather revival) of the Museum’s educational service should be made at the expense of its scholarship. The administrative burden on curators has also, in many instances, become unmanageable, which may lead to the conclusion that more registrars and clerical officers are needed; it may lead to the conclusion that certain curators should be relieved of all administrative duties for some of the time; but it does not lead to the conclusion that registrars and ‘object-handling managers’ should be given almost all of the curators’ responsibilities.