The V&A is one of our greatest cultural institutions, a great ship of state, launched in the High Victorian era of confidence born of empire and industrial success, and one which saw choppy waters in the later 20th century. Now, the museum visitor figures for 2006, at 2.5 million, were more than double the number visiting the museum in 2000, and the recent Art Deco show was one of the most visited exhibitions in its history. Spring 2008 will see the first major exhibition in this country of con-
temporary design in China.
Mark Jones, at the helm as director for the past six years, was formerly the director of the National Museums of Scotland, and, before that, the Keeper of Coins and Medals at the British Museum. Rather exotically, he was born in Columbia in South America, and can just remember part of his early childhood in Greece, including visits to the Parthenon and Delphi.
His earliest memory of a London museum was the Science Museum?’there was a machine that passed volts through your body and made your hair stand on end’. His interest in art began as a teenager. ‘Boots used to sell reproduction prints of great works of art, and I can remember at about 14 buying a print of Constable’s Hay Wain. I later went to the Tate, and realised there were other interesting painters beside Constable, such as Turner, and, indeed, I bought a print of a Turner painting.’
It sparked sufficient interest for him to ask ‘the librarian at school how one would get a job in a gallery, and he said, go to university, get a good degree in any subject, and then study art history at the Courtauld Institute, which is what I did’. After PPE at Worcester College, Oxford, he went to the Courtauld. Tall, dark and serious, Mr Jones still has something of a donnish air about him and has clearly thought deeply about the history and nature of the V&A as an institution.
‘The origin of the V&A is simple and interesting; it was set up as the teaching collection for the South Kensington College of Art, after a government recommendation of 1831. This is relevant to the ?instrumentality? of the museum.
It was set up with an instrumental purpose in mind. If Britain’s manufacturers were to compete in international markets, the government needed to found a school of design.
‘What was the best way to teach design? As with art, it was to make students study works from the past to the present, hence elements such as the cast court here. The museum was to be a resource for students of design as well as a wider public. I think this is how it works best today; indeed, more than one-third of our visitors are either students, teachers or practitioners of art or design.
‘From the 1870s, the museum did begin to become more of an art for art’s sake museum’, but Mr Jones believes it never lost sight of its core purpose, which is treated as central again today. ‘For Britain in the 21st century, manufacturing is much less important, but creative design is more prominent than ever.’
The museum has undergone a multi-staged renewal, and many new or refurbished galleries have been unveiled, most with private sponsorship. It has required a reassessment of the whole building and the way it works. ‘It has important 19th-century architectural spaces, which were closed in the 1960s and 1970s, but we’ve found that opening up original spaces and vistas has been a great success. We’ve used excellent contemporary designers, too, such as Eva Jiricna, who created the small sculpture galleries.’ A hugely complex ‘Chinese puzzle’ of rearrangement continues, but the V&A still desperately needs new permanent galleries for temporary shows.
Overall, he thinks: ‘The V&A is about making people look critically at art and design, and thus to look critically at all life’s visual choices. If I have one wish for it, it’s that people will think of it as one of the world’s greatest generators of exhibitions and publications about art and design. That’s my hope.’