MUSEUM OF THE YEAR: Back in circulation

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The V&A was the surprise winner of this year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year award and there was even more surprise when it was announced that the prize money would be spent on reviving the museum’s circulation department, four decades after it was closed. But Simon Tait discovers that the plan is designed to benefit the regions as well as the V&A


When the Victoria & Albert Museum’s direc- tor announced that he would spend the £100,000 Art Fund Museum of the Year Award prize money on bringing back the circulation department, there were a lot of bemused glanc- es among the audience at the Natural History awards din- ner last month. But a few hearts, whose memories went back 40 years to a controversy that almost tore the V&A apart, beat a little faster.

“With this prize” Martin Roth said “we plan to revive the Museum’s legendary circulation department, which  collected and shared the best of contemporary design with regional museums, galleries and art colleges, but which closed in 1976. We will ‘re-circulate’ our collections, taking them beyond our usual metropolitan partners and engaging in a more intimate way with the communities we reach so that we can continue to deliver on our ambition to be both a national museum for a local audience and a local museum for a national audience.”

Circulation – Circ as it became known - was the depart- ment that created exhibitions to take to the regions. By the time it was closed in 1976 to save money it was the biggest department in the museum with a staff of 38, a collection of 35,000 objects and 70 exhibitions on the road. David Hockney presented a petition to the education secretary, Shirley Williams, signed by artists, critics, academics and historians with the belief that Circ’s loss “would irretriev- ably deprive the nation of ready access to a significant part of its art collections”, and “deprive the whole country of a standard-setting and cost-effective service which con- tinues to fulfill the vision of the original founders of the V&A”.

The Art Fund award will provide the focus for the V&A to return to that vision which, says its director of re- search and collections Professor Bill Sherman, had been lost. “That founding moment comes between the start of the Design Schools founded by Henry Cole in 1835 and the aftermath of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the creation of this site (in South Kensington) as a combination of objects and teaching” he says. “That was a really extraor- dinary legacy, and in many ways I would say the system- atically we’re reinventing all of those original moments”.

Design and the teaching of it was Sir Henry Cole’s main preoccupation, “a schoolroom for everyone”, out of which also came the Royal College of Art, and the idea of circulating instructive objects was always part of the ethos of the South Kensington Museum, later the V&A. In a major reorganisation in 1909 it was embodied as a department.

Its main subject matter was contemporary design. Oth- er departments were forbidden to acquire objects less than 50 years old, but not Circ, which became the embodiment of the V&A’s pastoral role as envisaged by Cole and his patron Prince Albert.

When the director, Roy Strong, announced in November 1976 that Circ would close he wrote in his diary that it would take years to get the V&A back to where it had been. Staff were distributed around the other curatorial departments and the collection still ex- ists, though largely in store.

There was outcry. Users of the Schools Loans said the V&A would “become just another passive, metropolitan monolith, to be visited by out-of-towners once or twice a year”. Regional venues felt Circ’s loss would “cut off the provinces from a source of educational and artistic material which we have now come to count on very greatly indeed”. Merseyside County Council was “prepared to lead a provincial revolt against the London art establishment” by withdrawing co-operation unless the closure was dropped.

Through the 80s and 90s, with the V&A devolved from the Department for Education to an independent board of trustees, the preoccupation was first with crowd-attracting exhibitions, then reorganising the curatorial staff and in the 2000s the development of the V&A building.

Bill Sherman’s arrival at the V&A from the University of York in 2014 coincided with the announcement of the museum’s Olympic Park project, known as V&A East, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation-funded V&A Research Institute, which was inau- gurated in April with Sherman as its director.

“It sent me back into the V&A’s past, and really everything I have thought we ought to do has in some form or another a precedent here, of- ten in its original ethos” he says. “We needed to rediscover it in a modern context.

“Important parts of the founding thesis had been lost, and I think part of the problem at a place like the V&A is it’s so big and diverse, and rather of easy to be too diffuse. So something like the spirit of Circ for us is a really useful lens to draw together a lot of what we’ve actually been doing all along, but to project that founding mission that people don’t really asso- ciate us with any more, or even know about.”

The V&A does make loans and its plans for V&A Dundee and V&A East, scheduled for 2018 and 2021 re- spectively, are in Cole’s “schoolroom for everyone” idiom, but with the Art Fund prize funded “Recirculation”, as its working title is, there is to be a new contact with the regions. First, Sherman will consult with the other Art Fund Award shortlisted institu- tions “to find out what they would want from it”, and then to make a wider consultative trawl to museums but also arts schools, universities and local authorities to create partner- ships. “Rather than the V&A saying as we used to ‘this is what is good, you should know about it’, we want their ideas of what they felt they ought to be able to see” he says, and there will be detailed audience research into how they have responded to visiting V&A exhibitions. The emphasis may no longer be on design, but on the central quiddity of the V&A which is the design and manufacture of the fine and decorative arts.

The money won’t be spent on new staff; which will be drawn from the existing 130 complement. “£100,000 wouldn’t stretch that far if it was spent on salaries and it wouldn’t be the right thing to do anyway” Sherman says. “What we can do, though, is make it two-way traffic, find ways to collaborate, find ways to make objects from different collections come together to tell a story – that would be terrific. I think our network is pretty museum dominated and that original ethos of being in touch with design and mak- ing, even industry, is something that we need to do.”

To come is the new Exhibition Road building on the V&A estate, opening next year, which will enable a com- plete rethink of the north-east part of the museum including the current temporary exhibition space.

“Losing Circ was hard for every- one, including Roy Strong” Sheldon says, “and he said it would take years to get the V&A back to where it had been. I would say we’re back.”

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