V&A Futures: From Inclusivity to Total Access

By Martin Roth and Kate Bethune |

Total accessibility is the future of museums, but to develop a strategy for the future, you often have to go back to the past. The museum enjoys a rich heritage, having been borne out of the vision of two great Victorian men: Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg and Civil Servant Sir Henry Cole, who became the Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A) first Director. Conceived as a museum for everyone, the V&A’s founding mission was to make works of art available to all, to educate, and to inspire good design principles. One hundred and sixty-five years later, the V&A – like many other historic institutions – is confronted with the challenging tension between reinventing the Museum for new and expanding audiences and maintaining the long term stewardship of the past.

As innocuous as it may seem today, teeming with visitors from all over the world, our museum café provides a perfect setting to begin any discussion of the future of the V&A. While cafes are part of a standard museum ‘business as usual’ today, at the time that Henry Cole came up with the idea of a public restaurant within a museum, it was something truly pioneering. As the world’s oldest museum restaurant, the V&A was a radical expression of social inclusivity that represented an opening out, a sharing of space, culture and wealth with the general public. Looking closely at the walls of The Poynter Room one discovers tiles, painted by female students at the Schools of Design – a bold move in 1860s society when it was unusual for women to train professionally, let alone to contribute to an ambitious and high-profile public work. It is also thanks to Cole’s inclusive thinking that the V&A became the first public museum in the world to be artificially lit so that workers could enjoy the collections in their evening leisure time.

Through international partnerships and development, we are expanding our reach, from a single internationally acclaimed London-based museum to a constellation of affiliated exhibition spaces. This will mean access and engagement with new audiences in Dundee, Scotland, Shekou, China and, more locally, at a site within the Queen Elizabeth Park in East London which will not only accommodate V&A East, but also will be home to premises for Sadlers Wells, University College London and 5,000 students from University of the Arts London. From these additional premises we will collaborate with new and diverse partners, work closely with local communities, activate a greater number of objects from our stores, and provide a laboratory for more responsive, impactful and experimental curation.

Our growing physical presence will develop in tandem with innovative digitisation programmes and sophisticated storage solutions that expand access to our collections by harnessing the potential of new technologies and digital possibilities. It’s a challenge to say the least, and it requires new ways of thinking and making. We are in the process of bringing together some of the best designers to imagine and conceptualise ‘total access storage’ unlike anything we’ve seen as yet. Inspiration for change include the service levels and responsiveness of Amazon, robotics, engineering and of course V&A staff whose intimate knowledge of the collections are invaluable to any redesign project.

Architecture and placemaking also has a critical role to play in broadening the thresholds of the museum and our value to the public and local community. Just as it was in Cole’s time, the V&A café and adjacent John Madejski garden continues to be a dynamic social space of invaluable cultural encounter. Physically and metaphorically the heart the museum, our garden is filled with visitors; especially young families who come in summer to enjoy the shallow pool at its centre. Providing vital spaces for social encounter as well, the V&A is about a great deal more than the objects it contains. The museum’s relationship to the street is hugely significant, and is garnering more attention as a site for museum activity. While public art installations, such as Subodh Gupta’s ‘When Soak Becomes Spill’, brought the V&A onto the street and enabled the museum to make works of art available to all, a new entrance and courtyard on Exhibition Road designed by Amanda Levete (opening Spring 2017) will in turn provide an architectural embrace of the world immediately outside the walls of the V&A, creating a new symbiosis between the equally public spaces of museum and street.

The architecture of the new entrance for the V&A also speaks volumes about access. It will bring down walls, pierce the limitations of gallery space and invites in the outside world, new ideas and new audiences – whether they come to spend the entire day wandering the galleries, or don’t make it past the courtyard cafe. Naturally it will be a grand entrance, worthy of a national museum. But of equal importance it will provide a new public gathering place for locals, to help reclaim a little piece of the South Kensington neighbourhood for everyone to enjoy, one affordable cup of coffee at a time. This ongoing genesis of the building – which blends the historic edifice with the vision of contemporary architects – is also crucial in connecting the museum with the art, design, architecture and engineering worlds which it was built to sustain.

As vital public spaces that are tasked with preserving artefacts – and with them our rich and extraordinary global cultural heritage – museums must engage with the world immediately outside. The idea that what happens outside, happens inside has long been a focus for the V&A. One need only look to the changing landscape of European politics or the ongoing refugee crisis to appreciate the fundamental importance of museums in forging a sense of shared heritage, shared experience and in reconnecting displaced peoples with their cultural identity.

Our adult learning programs do some very important work in this regard, assembling creative projects and exhibitions that showcase the skills and stories of local minority groups and displaced people, and we are always looking for ways to do more. Sometimes it can be difficult to bridge that gap, to have communities feel comfortable coming here, so where that is the case, we go to them. Our learning teams do great work in this endeavour, in making the V&A a museum that belongs to everyone and involving groups who may never otherwise make it through our doors. This is also very much part of the designs we have for V&A East in creating a more permeable space for collaboration and co-curation.

We continue to evolve as a global museum for a local community, and a local museum for a global community. Our ambition for the future is that total accessibility will mean we are a museum without limits. As disruptive as this may be seen by some, innovation and experimentation is an essential part of our ongoing duty and the V&A, a wonderfully dynamic work in progress.

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Dr. Martin Roth is the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Before joining the V&A, he was Director General of the Dresden State Art Collections (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden), overseeing 12 museums and galleries. From 1996 to 2001 Martin Roth was a member of the senior management of the Expo 2000 in Hanover and Director of Thematic Exhibitions. He was President of the German Museums Association from 1995 to 2003, and a member of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Advisory Board in Berlin until his relocation to London in 2011. After completing his PhD on the History of Museums and Cultural Politics in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich at the Eberhard Karls University in Tuebingen in 1987, Martin Roth became a researcher at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, E.H.E.S.S. in Paris. Following this, in 1992, he became a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

Dr. Kate Bethune joined the V&A in 2011, having completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge.  Kate has worked as Assistant Curator on a range of V&A fashion exhibitions, including Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 (2012) and Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s (2013). She then became Senior Research Assistant for the critically acclaimed Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Kate has contributed to the publications Alexander McQueen (V&A 2015), The V&A Gallery of Fashion (V&A 2013) and is author of A-Z of Wedding Style (V&A 2014).  She lectures on fashion curation at leading UK universities and is currently Senior Researcher for the Director of the V&A.

Image Credit: Render of V&A courtyard by day © AL_A.