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40 Under 40 Europe 2014

Abraham Thomas

27 August 2014

In your previous role, you were curator of designs and lead curator for architecture at the V&A. How did your work there prepare you for the Soane?

One of the things the V&A taught me was the importance of design drawings. That was a great grounding for the Soane Museum, where the architectural drawings collection is among the most important in the world, with roughly 30,000 drawings. There’s a wonderful pluralism at the V&A that I think also exists at the Soane – albeit on a much more intimate scale. Something I’d very much like to take forward here is how architecture can be explained through a prism of various other disciplines.

How would you like the museum to evolve under your direction?

My predecessor, Tim Knox, did a fantastic job securing the funding for, and planning out the current ‘Opening up the Soane’ project. Beyond that, I think there’s an exciting opportunity to explore areas of the collection that aren’t immediately so apparent, such as the drawings and the library. Something that’s key for me is reemphasising the role that the Soane has always had in engaging with contemporary practitioners – which dates back to Soane’s time, when he had his architectural office at the back of the museum, and when his Royal Academy students would come to study the collection. I want it to feel like a real resource again.

How can you encourage a new generation of visitors to the museum without damaging its unique character?

It’s really important not to alter what makes this museum special to our existing audience. I think we’ll be able to achieve that by reminding visitors that Soane himself was quite radical: he was always a contemporary thinker and collector, and there are numerous examples in his collection of contemporary makers. The Tivoli Recess was essentially this country’s first ever gallery of contemporary sculpture.

What role can connoisseurship play at the Soane today?

It’s very important. Personally, I’ve always been inter-ested in practice- and object-based research – the object leads to everything. You can tell that Soane felt that way too, through the very purposeful displays he created in the museum and how he used them to express his deep interest in provenance. And what can the Soane teach today’s collectors? I think its most important lesson is that collectors should be brave in following their instincts. The Soane is nothing if not distinctive – the collection defies characterisation. It spans everything from Egyptian antiquities to Peruvian pottery and satirical paintings, and captures the very singular vision of one man.

Are there enough opportunities for young curators to progress in the UK?

I’m sure that museums can do more. It’s a very tough and competitive job market at the moment. But there are some great flagship programmes that we should all support and emulate: the V&A’s Assistant Curator programme, curatorial grants from the Art Fund, and the work of the Clore Leadership Programme.