28 April 2021 / News

An Open Letter to Director of the V&A Tristram Hunt

Dear Dr Hunt

Imagine the contents of your house or flat have been chosen to be displayed in the V&A museum. What an honour! ‘Finally!’ You think. ‘My exquisite taste in soft furnishings and eye for detail have been recognised as internationally important!’

Here’s what will probably happen, if current plans go ahead: Your curtains, duvet, sheets and clothes will go to the Textiles department. Settee, chairs etc to Woodwork. Photos of Dad, friends, granny etc? – Photography department, obviously. Pretty soon, your entire life will have been catalogued and displayed over six different levels of the Museum. A few labels attached to each will explain what they’re made from and where they came from. If you’re lucky, with extra budget, there might be a mock-up room with facsimile copies of your cups and saucers and a dressing up box of your clothes. Y’ know – for the kids…

You might, at this point, understandably and legitimately pipe up: ‘What about me? Those curtains were a wedding day present. The dining chairs were Mum’s that we took when she had to move into the home, that photo of Dad is the only one I’ve got.. These things mean something to me!’ The problem is, in Museum-terms, you’re not very important. The objects are. ‘You’ are a bit of context that can be covered in a sentence: ‘Contents taken from interior owned by … ‘

If the above scenario feels a bit reductive decontextualised and just plain odd, there’s a similar one being played out on a more destructive scale at the moment, at the V&A, in relation to the Theatre and Performance collections.

Housed there since the 1920s, apart from a short release into the wild at Covent Garden from 1987-2007, and re-stuffed back into the V&A ever since, the budgetary ramifications of COVID-19 have forced the senior team of the Museum to reconsider (again) what to do with the National Collection of Performing Arts.

We have been here before; trying to classify and catalogue a collection that defies categorisation, is cross-disciplinary and (in museum terms) annoyingly focused on the personal and the human. Once again, the Performance Collections are framed as a messy problem that needs sorting out.

Most museums are, of course, ‘about’ objects. Particularly the ‘object’ as unique and, perhaps most importantly, authentic. It’s why millions of people visit museums around the world every year.

When it comes to Performance though, the central focus on and interest in the human performer just can’t be relegated to the introductory panel text. For many people, rightly or wrongly, the performer, particularly a ‘famous’ name, is a major attraction and even the main reason for booking a ticket to a show. Other aspects such as set design, costume design etc are secondary. Sorry V&A, home of Design etc… To many people, in this context, design is just not the main source of their pleasure. So, any museum with a ‘Performance’ collection that ignores or underestimates the importance of the performer is, itself, a ‘problem.’

Let’s examine that idea that the object needs to be ‘authentic’ to be worthy of consideration. Now we have another ‘problem.’ The vast majority of objects in the Theatre and Performance Collections, in museum terms, aren’t authentic. They’re just not ‘real.’ That 19th Century dress worn by Judi Dench in The Seagull? Not real, in the sense that it wasn’t made in the 19th Century. That Inca Mask from ‘The Royal Hunt of the Sun’ ? Is that second century AD? No. It was made in the 1960s. Even the set model boxes are surely just 3D versions of the larger ones that we see onstage so they aren’t real either. (But, hang on: the ‘real’ set isn’t real either..?!?)

Ok. So some things are ‘real’ like a First Folio edition of the works of William Shakespeare. Phew! Back on solid ground here. It’s a book. It’s old. People have heard of it…So we can display that nicely in a case, open at ‘Hamlet.’ ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth… etc’

What about a National Video Archive of Performance recording of Ben Whishaw playing the role of Hamlet though? Is that ‘authentic’? How do we classify a digital recording of a performance? A series of ‘1’s and’0’s capturing an ephemeral event?

The ‘problem’ with these ‘problems’ is that they are largely only ‘problems’ to certain sections of the Museum and the result of a rigid approach to classification that Performance just doesn’t adhere to. That’s not Performance’s ‘problem.’

Most people outside of museums have no issue with, in performance, a focus on the personal and the human. These talented humans tell us stories about ourselves and we willingly suspend disbelief to hear them speak, using words and phrases we might lack the skill or confidence to say ourselves but wish we could. To watch them dance, sing, play instruments, interact, argue and laugh with others. We know it isn’t ‘real’ – that’s a huge part of its appeal. For two hours or more, you can take me to another place. I’ll let you. I’ll marvel at your clothes and the light and the sound and I’ll tell people in years to come that ‘I was there!’ We love it! It’s why we go! I can’t ever get that experience back but I want a Performance Collection that really strives to explain and share it with me, through objects, texts and context. Showing me a panel informing me that Keith Moon’s drum kit is made of wood, plastic and metal and can be seen on Levels 3, 5 and 6 just isn’t going to do it. Not even close…

The Theatre and Performance Collections, to retain any authority in explaining its history and legacy to future generations, needs to remain as a separate collection. Not split into component parts by ‘material’ or ‘technique’ that brutally decontextualise and rob them of their appeal and meaning. They need to be cared for by people with passion and the understanding that they are multi-layered and tell intricate many-faceted stories.

Through its dedicated and knowledgeable team of archivists and curators, it already has this authority. They have worked closely with these collections on a daily basis, for decades, and see nothing ‘problematic’ with its ‘messiness.’ It has talented and committed interpreters in the Learning Department. Please, please work hard to maintain the integrity and coherence of the National Collection of Performing Arts.

Thanks for taking the time to read.

Best wishes.

Adrian Deakes.

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