Transnational work at the V&A Museum

Beth McKillop
Keeper of the Department of Asia
Victoria and Albert Museum


The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s leading museum of art and design. Our international work traces its origins to London’s first global gathering, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, which took place from 1 May to 15 October 1851, attracting 6 million visitors, equivalent to a third of the population of Britain at the time. A healthy profit was made from ticket sales, part of which was used to fund the museum that became the V&A. From beginnings as a museum with a mission to exhibit the best international art, craft and design to the Britain public, we have grown into an institution that transmits knowledge, exhibitions and ideas and receives objects, inspiration and support from all over the world. If to be transnational means to transcend national boundaries, then the V&A has been transnational since before we knew what the term means.

Henry Cole (1808-82), whose determination and convictions shaped the new museum, wrote in a report to his political masters, the Board of Trade, ‘A Museum presents probably the only effectual means of educating the adult, who cannot be expected to go to school like the youth, and the necessity for teaching the grown man is quite as great as that of training the child. By proper arrangements a Museum may be made in the highest degree instructional.’ This didactic mission, this high idealism, must surely remain at the heart of museum work in the 21st century. To use language of a more modern kind, we can say that museums are part of the movement to change the asymmetry of power and knowledge which exists between the privileged and the underprivileged, between the educated and the ignorant. With seven day a week opening and free access to the permanent collections, the V&A (like Britain’s other national museums) is delivering excellent value to the citizens of Britain and to others who visit us.

Between Henry Cole’s time and now, probably the two biggest changes to the context of museum work have been the growth in international travel since the 1960s, and easy universal access to the internet from the 1990s. Today, the V&A website, like all the others, just keeps on growing. Between April 2006 and March 2007, it attracted 19.4 million visits. As well as our institutional main site, we collaborate in electronic projects such as the ‘Institute of Jainology’ website (a resource for Jain believers and for students of Indian art and culture) and the innovative ‘Discover Islamic Arts’ site, operated by the Brussels-based ‘Museum with no Frontiers’ consortium which displays Islamic art from collections around the Mediterranean Sea, opening up curatorial and web-specialist conversations between colleagues working in very diverse institutions.

In these ways, we are networking our products to reflect the networked world we live in. For example, over 20,000 images from our collection, with short descriptions, are published on our website, and these digital images are free to all, for personal and education use.
In addition to building up our virtual resources, the V&A has been a trail-blazer for UK regional and international touring exhibitions. We’ve found that when we work abroad, we have to adapt and to interact. Each country has its particular way of working, its assumptions, its audiences and its expectations – which colour and modify the way the V&A is perceived. We believe our exhibitions do a lot to showcase British design, culture and history in ways that enhance Britain’s reputation, but we recognize that international touring exhibitions in particular need a stronger funding framework in which to thrive. As successors to the business-like founders of the early V&A, we are keenly conscious that a solvent museum is a thriving museum. We’ve recently worked with colleagues in a number of cultural organizations in London, commissioning the British think-tank Demos to write a report about cultural diplomacy - Through the Demos report we hope to stimulate a lively and wide-ranging debate about the place of culture in international relations and to draw attention to our successes: this month for example the V&A has five exhibitions touring (Vivienne Westwood – Modernism – Cinema India – Japanese prints – Mediaeval and Renaissance Treasures), and our last 12 month total for visitor numbers in international venues (2006-07) is 295,000 people.

Transnational work takes place as much on home ground as in distant places. The V&A’s Chinese New Year celebrations – attended by thousands of Londoners and tourists every winter – are as much part of the V&A’s world profile as are the exhibition tours. Creative approaches to the funding and operation of international programmes are the key to sustaining and developing the transnational work. I hope to contribute to, and learn from the debate at the ICOM Shanghai conference.

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