“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” So said William Morris, pioneer of British socialism, designer and founding figure of the V&A. From the beginning, the South Kensington museum (as it was known) had a strongly democratic ethos. The rooms of the museum were to be ‘The People’s Galleries’, with gas lighting for working people to visit in the evening, a café so that families could have an enjoyable day out, and written labels as a free alternative to an expensive catalogue.
The museum was to be an open, engaging place of enjoyment and learning. In the nineteenth century as today, this founding mission is a reminder of just how significant museums are as physical sites of community and convergence. They are places for nurturing citizenship and collective understanding. And so, today at the V&A we are reflecting - as each generation must - on how we ensure our collections and programmes connect afresh with a fast-changing society.
After two years of Covid-enforced closures, cancellations and reduced entrance, Easter saw the V&A re-open for seven days a week with no pre-bookings and a full programme of events, festivals, late nights and exhibitions. We were immediately rewarded by the sight of over 70,000 visitors happily exploring our galleries in the Bank Holiday week.
This buoyant start demonstrates a remarkable appetite for culture and creativity, from focused study to an explorative day out. Yet again, we have seen how the importance of physical encounters in museums remains compelling in a digital age. For many, there’s no greater sense of experience above and beyond the wonder and potency of viewing tangible collections in a civic setting.
Alongside personal growth, a founding inspiration for the V&A was the importance of teaching design education. Our fulfilment of this mission is today all the more vital considering the staggering drop in the uptake of creative subjects in schools in recent years.
Research carried out for the V&A has shown that 82 per cent of Britons (over 44 million of us) consider ourselves to be creative in some form, with a further 57 per cent believing that creativity is important to us. And yet despite the overwhelming value assigned to creativity in these polls, its formal and funded place within the school curriculum is in steep decline.
Over the last 15 years there has been a steady fall in the number of young people taking creative subjects at GCSE, with Design and Technology recording a 67 per cent drop between 2010-2019. Budget constraints, curriculum reforms, and sometimes parental prejudice has seen art, music, drama, and D&T increasingly side-lined. From the gaming industry to information design, from our diplomacy service to our healthcare system, we need creative people and, in the formal and informal education system, we should be prioritising and protecting the rigour, mind-set and productive capacity nurtured by creative subjects.
Here at the V&A - surrounded by some of the most inspiring products of human ingenuity - we believe that creativity enriches people’s lives and strengthens society. Simply put, it is what makes us human. Today, we are launching a new campaign which shares that message through a short film. In itself, the film is a demonstration of the benefits of fostering creative talent, directed by Georgia Hudson, working with Oscar-nominated Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey with choreography by Max Cookward (Finalist, BBC Young Dancer 2019) and Magnus Westwell (Young Associate Artist, Sadler’s Wells).
The film explores the effect of creativity on an unexpected museum visitor, unpacking how wondrous spaces can encourage visitors to experience the world differently – to spark joy, surprise, new perspectives, conversations and connections. Through V&A collections, programmes and the very fabric of the building, we celebrate the impact of creativity on our lives and the wider world.
The most important function of the public collection at the V&A is to be used, by all, as a sourcebook, a resource to feed the imagination. As we look ahead to the next three years, which will see the V&A open three new sites in East London - Young V&A, V&A East Storehouse and V&A East Museum - and expand our design teaching across English schools, we are focusing on a new mission: to champion design and creativity in all its forms, for everyone.
The future of the V&A is being built around this strategic commitment to encourage collaboration, challenge and opportunity - and, with it, an institutional pledge to embrace creative practice, where ever it comes from. The objects in our galleries tell stories of making and designing that can be used as inspiration – not only for future innovation, not only for studying the material past, but also as inspiration for living.
Creativity helps us to respond to the world around us and to value the diverse perspectives within it. It gives us the sustenance we need to grow strong, vivid and resilient communities. Creativity is what makes us human - and we want it to be, like education and freedom, for all.
Tristram Hunt is Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum