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The V&A springs a surprise with Tristram Hunt

13 January 2017

Tristram Hunt has been appointed as the new director of the V&A. The Labour MP and former Shadow Cabinet minister is to take up the role in the coming months, triggering a by-election in his parliamentary seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central.

The announcement will come as a surprise to many in the museum sector: senior curators and directors of other institutions had been tipped for the job. Perhaps it will turn out to be an inspired appointment, in the way that Neil MacGregor protected and furthered the museum culture of this country despite coming to the sector in a leadership role, without having clambered up its institutional rungs. But the V&A, with its huge staff and diverse collections, is not the easiest place to cut one’s directorial teeth.

Hunt has maintained his interests in 18th- and 19th-century urban and industrial history during his time in parliament, writing, broadcasting and lecturing on the period (I recommend his recent radio programme on the historian Asa Briggs, available here). He has been closely involved with national heritage organisations, as a former trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and has been a vocal supporter of the ceramics industry in Staffordshire and of preserving its history. In 2014, he contributed to the campaign to save the Wedgwood Collection for the nation; it was gifted to the V&A and went on long-term loan to the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Staffs.

Hunt cited that experience in his resignation letter to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, writing that ‘There were very few jobs that would have convinced me to stand down as MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, but the post of Director of the V&A – the world’s greatest museum of art, design and performance – is just that. It brings together all my lifetime passions of education, historical scholarship, meshing past with present, and public engagement. It also continues my connection with this wonderful city thanks to the V&A’s ownership of the Wedgwood Collection, on show at the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston. The history of design, craftsmanship and technology which I have been taught in conversations in front rooms and pot banks across North Staffordshire, will serve me well in my new job.’

The culture secretary Karen Bradley said that Hunt ‘has a wealth of experience as a historian and a great passion for arts and culture that will serve him very well in this role.’ It will take more than passion to lead the V&A through its ambitious expansion projects, however, what with the museum’s plans for V&A East in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic park, the continuing construction of V&A Dundee, and the museum’s five-year partnership with the Shekou Design Museum in Shenzhen, China (due to open this year). Hunt will need to hit the ground running – and not least because, closer to home, the museum’s Exhibition Road extension is due to open in July this year.

And what of Hunt’s attitude to the museum sector more widely? Few would doubt his interest in the art and heritage sectors, or his knowledge of his own academic field. But now that he is to be the director of one of them, does he still support the reintroduction of admission fees in national museums, which he proposed in 2011 as ‘a truly equitable cultural policy’?