One of the great privileges of working at the Victoria and Albert Museum is walking to work past the grand Cromwell Road entrance each morning. From 8.30am a queue of expectant visitors begins to form, waiting patiently. When the V&A’s heavy oak doors swing open at 10am, that moment represents the culmination of a huge institutional effort, and 10,000 visitors of all ages, backgrounds and cultures wander the seven miles of public galleries, take in an exhibition, drink tea, eat scones, buy a book, make a donation, meet a friend, or sketch a Rodin in the sculpture gallery. Opening a museum every day is complex, thrilling, joyful and life-affirming. It’s why many of us choose to work in the sector in the first place.
For those of us lucky enough to work in museums, that joy has been replaced with an anxiety shared across the nation, and two of the most challenging and surreal weeks of our professional lives. On Tuesday 17 March at 5.45pm we closed the doors to visitors, and then two days later to employees, for an unknown period of time. Many of us have at some point had to deal with significant challenges in our museum career – funding reductions, project delays or overspends, the death of a close colleague, the reality and ongoing threat of a terrorist attack – but nothing so at odds with a museum’s purpose as full closure due to a global pandemic. This is not so much a practical and logistical challenge as an emotional one. It’s not technically difficult to close a museum, yet it is counterintuitive to what museums are for.
Everything that the V&A stands for – from our founding mission of art and design for all, to our immediate plans to revolutionise access to our collections through the creation of V&A East and the transformation of the Museum of Childhood – is driven towards access, opening what is closed, translating what is complex, creating new knowledge and disseminating it. Now the doors on Cromwell Road and the weighty steel gates of the new Exhibition Road entrance are locked and bolted, and the public galleries have been left in the capable hands of our security personnel, aided by four regular ghosts and the Kensington Valhalla.
There is a short article on the V&A website which gives a sense of what it took for the museum to survive the war. This it duly did, despite the terrifying and regular threat of enemy bombing raids, the scars of which remain on Aston Webb’s facades on Exhibition Road today. During this period much of the collection was moved to safety, first to Montacute House in Somerset and then to the subterranean embrace of Westwood Quarry near Bradford-on-Avon, while larger exhibits stayed behind.
We, of course, are not at war, but we are experiencing a different kind of crisis. The focus at the museum has been on putting the building to sleep – into a kind of induced coma securing it until we can open our doors again. The security teams patrol and monitor deserted galleries on-site and at home through remotely monitored CCTV. Our Building Management Systems ensure that stable environmental conditions are maintained and ‘high risk’ objects are now subject to daily threat assessments and checks. The building is locked but toilets still need to be flushed and taps turned on to keep the arteries clear and to be legionella compliant; a sound pest management regime means that crumbs from 105,115 scones consumed by visitors each year cannot be left unattended.
The wider work of the museum must now continue – remotely – for our people and for our public. Over the past week we have transitioned to a ‘new normal’. Institutions have a reputation for their slow-paced, analogue ways of working and yet in the past week we have adapted to an entirely new way of working. IT teams across the sector are the heroes of the hour and we are swiftly learning how to mute and unmute. There has been humour, skill and extraordinary professionalism, creativity and expertise on show. In a short space of time we have already learnt from these new working methods: meeting culture has been streamlined and I’ve personally discovered that it is possible to make an effective contribution to a remote meeting of the board of trustees from the front seat of a car overlooking Peckham Rye. Beyond the technical transformation of our communication processes on a simple, human level, more time and care has been taken to check on our colleagues’ well-being. All of this we need to remember and carry with us on the other side.
After the war, with the nation recovering from its tragedies, with labour and money in short supply, it was not until 1948 that all the national collections were brought back from storage and the museum could reopen fully to the public. In 2020, across the nation’s cultural community, the website has become the building, social media channels replacing the hubbub of visitors, the enthusiasm of tour guides and the special intimacy of an exhibition gallery. We are engaged and we are open.
Tim Reeve is Deputy Director & Chief Operating Officer of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.