Closure of the National Art Library and Proposed Restructuring of the V&A Museum
As many of our members already know the Victoria and Albert is planning a major restructuring of the museum and a massive staff reduction and immediate temporary closure of the National Art Library, both of which we see as proposals that will have a disastrous effect on expertise and learning. As a Society, founded to encourage research into and knowledge of the history of collecting, we can only deplore these proposals, taken in the name of necessary cost-cutting. We appreciate that the situation today, as a result of the COVID lockdowns, require reviewing the running costs including salaries of staff throughout the museum. However, in our view, these measures go beyond such imperatives. In practice they will be costly in themselves and furthermore will cause immeasurable harm to future scholarship, whether enabling students to access the rich resources of the National Art Library or affecting the expertise contained within departments, created from the outset to allow an object-based approach – with regard to materials, techniques, construction, function, authenticity, design and influences.
The proposal regarding the NAL is to make two-thirds of its staff redundant, then shut the library for everything but a digital service for a year while carrying out another review. This is in effect to renege on their responsibility to host a national art library, which the V&A accepted and fought for on the grounds that the library was an essential part of the museum. At this point in time, the library and its special collections are more valuable than ever, after a year of virtual learning with no access to the library’s resources. As scholars know, the ability to explore information freely in books and articles is one of the most crucial aspects of study and research. In the long-term this must remain available to students and researchers. The local and international community depends on the range of information available only in the NAL, such as art journals, exhibition catalogues and free access to many online databases, to mention only a few. For the history of collecting in particular, the sales catalogues are an invaluable resource that is not replicated elsewhere. In the short term, how will the library be able to replace this with online resources? Only certain books and articles have been scanned or, more recently, published online. Virtual consultations are highly unsatisfactory. Research and study will never thrive under such limited resources.
The destruction of the existing curatorial system has immense long-term implications, which should not be implemented in haste, without consultation with senior curators and also with the museums founded in imitation or through the inspiration of the material-based approach of the V&A. The basis of the V&A’s divisions into material departments distinguishes it and complements historically organised museums, including the British Museum. The proposed chronological structure is based on historical dates that are not necessarily of relevance to the collections in questions and that impose meaning on objects. The museum was not founded to give a comprehensive historical account but to encourage the creation and consumption of art and design. Having curators engaged in the cataloguing and study of object by material does not mean a lack of collaboration between departments, as indicated by the highly successful period-based galleries. However important these galleries are for an initial understanding of an historical period, though, they cannot replicate the depth of material available in the specialist material-based galleries, which allow in-depth material-based study and learning that is a core function of the museum. For the Society for the History of Collecting, expertise and connoisseurship of the object and the complementary provenance issues are core tools for those interested in any aspect of collecting,
The Society calls on the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum to reconsider the proposals in light of their disruption, cost of their implementation and the likely erosion of curatorial expertise, and to extend the consultation period to allow discussion and genuine consultation with internal and external stakeholders.
If members wish to access the protest against the closure of the art library, they should go to http://chng.it/4QFvR6PGFm
Society for the History of Collecting 12 March, 2021