The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is currently being transformed by the ambitious FuturePlan project which includes the creation of a new museum and a new collection centre – the V&A East.
The V&A’s FuturePlan project will see the creation of new galleries and visitor facilities as well as restoration work on the original building in Kensington. Plans for V&A East include a new five-storey museum, alongside a new collection and research centre, located in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford.
V&A East will form part of a new culture and education centre within the Olympic Park, called East Bank. Blooloop spoke to Tim Reeve and Gus Casely-Hayford to find out more about the exciting developments at the V&A East.
Tim Reeve has been Deputy Director of the V&A since 2013. In this role, he has a strategic operational overview of all museum activities. He also leads divisions responsible for commercial and digital activities, exhibitions, financing, resources, marketing, international strategy and the FuturePlan project.
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford OBE, Director of V&A East, is a curator, cultural historian, broadcaster and author. Before joining this project, Casely-Hayford was director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington DC. He’s also presented several TV programmes and served on the board of many cultural institutions. For instance, the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery.
The V&A and COVID-19
Reeve begins by talking about the current situation at the V&A. Like cultural institutions all over the world, the museum has been greatly impacted by the global pandemic. The V&A first reopened in August with reduced capacity. It is now open again, following the UK’s recent circuit-breaker lockdown which ended on 2 December.
“We’ve had to redesign the way we run the museum as a public building. Normally the V&A, in happier times, is extremely busy. What people get now, because of the need for us to reduce capacity very markedly, is a unique experience. They feel like they have some of the galleries all to themselves. So in one respect, there’s a very positive component to the new way we’re operating.
“But the fact is, we can’t carry on like this for very long. Visitor numbers in this new regime are 15% of what they would normally be. Looking ahead to next year and the year after, we need to try and work out how we can gradually get back to something like we were before, in terms of being a cultural attraction.
“We have tried to create a safe environment. Somewhere people can come in and relax and reconnect with the collections. It feels like we’ve got the balance right in some very unusual circumstances, and it will do as for now. But it’s not a sustainable way of running a museum, so I would summarise it as so far, so good.”
Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk
Two weeks before the UK went into its first lockdown and the V&A closed its doors in March 2020, the museum had just opened a new exhibition, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk.
“We had wonderful reviews,” says Reeve. “It’s such a vibrant exhibition. The collections we’ve been able to put together are astonishing. They tell a really important story of the kimono as a cultural icon and its impact on the world.”
“Having to close that after two weeks and mothball it for months, was a very difficult thing to do. On the plus side, we have been able to extend it. So when we reopened it was still there for people to visit. It’s quite a linear exhibition and it’s almost one way. This means that it’s easy for people to find their way through it safely.
“We are able to offer guided tours. We did a brilliant curated tour of the kimono exhibition online during lockdown. And as we move into a situation where we are able to open a bit more, we are doing things like special events and member events.
“We’re not able to provide the same capacity. But those who are going through are able to enjoy it without it being too busy. So we have to take the positives.”
Hitting the ground running
For Gus Casely-Hayford, the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent lockdown came just as he joined the team behind the V&A East project. Despite the slightly inconvenient timing, he was able to hit the ground running. This was, he says, thanks to the rest of the project team:
“It is a fantastic team. They have been enormously accommodating to me as a new member during this challenging time. Working remotely and delivering on such an intensive and demanding project has been challenging. But we’ve used the time well. One of the things that this period has been very conducive to has been planning and thinking laterally.
“I live quite close to Hampstead Heath here and I have been watching people in this period responding to having limited access to culture. They’ve attempted to use public spaces in really interesting ways.
“I wander across the heath and I see impromptu concerts and silent discos and readings and all sorts of things. It’s just reminded me of how much we need culture and how much we need institutions like the V&A.
“I really look forward to engaging with communities in East London. I want to give them the kind of auditorium in which they can bring that energy into our spaces.”
“Gus has managed to achieve a lot, having arrived at the V&A in lockdown,” adds Reeve. “It has been an astonishing few months. He has made his presence felt very powerfully. Now, it is a co-production between him and me for the next few years. We’re leading the project together.”
V&A East will include a brand new five-storey museum, designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey, as well as a research and collection centre. This is an existing building that is being converted by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. When completed, it will be home to 250,000 objects from the V&A’s collection. These will be stored in a way as to make them more accessible than ever before.
The V&A East project has been in the pipeline for several years, starting from when Reeve first stepped into his role at the V&A in 2013.
“On day one of my arrival at the V&A, one of the things that was literally plonked on my desk was this inch thick master planning document about what might be possible in the Olympic Park. The director at the time said, ‘Have a look at this and tell me what you think.’
Reeve says that two things leapt out very strongly, almost immediately:
“The first was the opportunity for synergy in partnership. There were those being talked about as moving into the park. Plus there were potential partners already in the park. And then this wider community around the park and the great creative heritage of that part of London.
“And the second was the people who live in that part of London. The potential audience for organisations like the V&A to connect with in ways that we have not done before.”
A project with potential
Reeve and the rest of the leadership team at the V&A decided fairly quickly that this idea had a lot of potential. “It was described in various ways. But I always quite liked this idea of a new ‘Albertopolis’ for the digital age,” he says.
“Over time, these projects always ebb and flow. They expand and contract and evolve. We ended up, a couple of years ago now, with this nice two-site proposition for V&A East. This was because two things came together accidentally.”
“One was the opportunity to have a new museum in the Olympic Park. This would be alongside London College of Fashion and Sadler’s Wells, and the BBC and so on. And, at the same time, we had this problem to solve. This was the fact that our entire reserve collection, currently housed in Blyth House in West London, was having to move to somewhere else.”
Solving a problem
“This lightbulb moment happened,” says Reeve. “We thought ‘hold on, we’ve got to bring these two things together.’
“Imagine the situation – the V&A is moving to Stratford, it’s bringing its expertise and its know-how and its desire to connect with a new audience. And it can bring 250,000 objects, 1000 archives and 300,000 library books as well. We were able to make that part of the proposition, which is to bring our entire non-display collection and to offer it to East London, as part of this new museum.”
“So, we have two buildings, two construction projects. One is a new building as part of the East Bank development. It is literally next door to the London College of Fashion.
“Then, a 10-minute walk away, is a sort of retrofit project, which I think is brilliant for us. We will bring our reserve collection to the Olympic Park as part of Here East. This is the repurposed broadcasting centre from the Olympic Games.”
V&A East – a new type of museum experience
Here, the museum will use its reserve collection to create a new type of museum experience, not just accessible storage, says Reeve.
“Having those two things working together will be a very powerful and unique proposition. Bringing the collection, bringing the objects, bringing this amazing legacy to Stratford and opening it up. Because it is intended to be and was brought together to be a source of inspiration. What we describe as this creative sourcebook.
[The collection] is intended to be and was brought together to be a source of inspiration
“To open it up in that part of London is laden with possibility.”
A strong creative vision
Reeve says that a project of this scale and ambition needs a strong creative vision, in order to truly resonate with its target audience. This is where Casely-Hayford comes in.
Casely-Hayford left his position at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art to work on the V&A East project. Talking about what attracted him to the development, he says:
“In part, it is the reputation of the incredible team at the V&A, Tim and Tristram [Hunt] and that incredible curatorial team. To feel that one could join that team, at this moment, it was just an enormous pleasure. I feel incredibly blessed.”
“But also I adore Britain. There’s nothing like spending time away from something for helping to re-establish how important it is to you.
“As we go through this period of transition, post-Brexit, I want to make a contribution. And I feel that this is a project that can speak to a generation, and to speak to a generation in a locality that has not traditionally been given the very best in the way of publicly-sponsored culture.”
Starting a dialogue through the V&A East
Casely-Hayford is excited about the potential of the V&A East project:
“It is an incredible new proposition for two new buildings, but also our amazing collections. What we want to do is to create an interface with our audiences and our local communities. One that will feel two-way. We want this to feel like their space. And them being in it will be the thing that animates the space, that brings it to life.
“It’s not just buildings, not just objects. It objects which come to life through a kind of dialogue with the local communities. That dynamism, that electricity, the interaction between community and object and space is what we want to see come to life in the two-building proposition of V&A East.”
“It’s difficult to describe the building,” adds Reeve. “It’s quite easy to get drawn into quite tired, well-worn ways of describing this sort of adventure. We can use the words immersive, open display, public, open storage and those sorts of things.
“But the idea at V&A East, and we selected the right architect, the right building and the right part of the Olympic Park for this, was to design something that brought people right into the middle of the collection.
“We have designed it in a way that draws people right in. This isn’t an experience where people will be able to nibble around the edges, and then inevitably reach the point where the stop sign comes up and you can go no further. It’s been designed so you are dropped into the heart of it. So that they feel like they aren’t having to get beyond barriers all the time.”
Exploring the collection
“What this will be, as well a different type of museum experience, is a real working logistics centre for the V&A collection,” says Reeve. “Objects will come and go. They will be conserved or they’ll go on tour or they’ll need to go off display because they can’t take too much light and so on.
“The word immersive can sound a bit hackneyed. This is about bringing the public and the collection closer together and to allow a different set of interactions to arise from that.”
“You can access collections in most public museums,” says Casely-Hayford. “But you might need a PhD or letters of recommendation. And once you get in, you probably have to navigate other additional layers of bureaucracy and security. Then, you might then be able to view the objects. But it probably won’t be in the most comfortable physical circumstances.”
“What we want to do is to change that completely. Our collections are held in trust for the public, they belong to all of them. And we want to offer them back to the public
“So it is this giant box, within which you are placed right into the centre of the collection. You will be able to stand in the collection at the very centre of the building. There is a huge glass atrium, with a glass floor and glass balustrade.
“You can stand in the centre of the building and see most of those 250,000 objects from a single spot. Here you will have a sense of the complexity, the breadth and the diversity of this collection. As well as the directions of potential investigation that you could potentially go on.
“It’s a point which is sort of equalising, whether you are an academic, whether you’re an artist, whether you are a young child who’s coming for the first time into the collection centre. This will be something which conveys the sense of the possibilities and the manifold stories that you can tell through our collection.”
Engaging with the V&A East
“What I’m hoping is that that proposition, that invitation, will then activate in the minds and imaginations of our visitors, a sense that this is the space in which we want them to add their own stories, to iterate the interpretation with their own contributions,” says Casely-Hayford.
“They can do that through digital engagement, through social media. They can tell us what our objects and what our space makes them feel.
“These objects aren’t just to be held in aspic and to be contained by academic interpretation. They are things which were made with love and care and thought. So we want to reactivate that love and that care through interaction with the public.”
We want this space to be somewhere that you come and visit, and you leave behind something of yourself
“We want this space to be somewhere that you come and visit, and you leave behind something of yourself. As well as taking away, hopefully, something which changes you.
“Over a period of months and years, we will accrete, along with all of the visits and the memories, a body of interpretive history that will demonstrate something of how this repository is not just something which is held in aspic, but which is constantly changing because of the way in which it’s dynamized by these visits.
“I think that is something which we lose with museums, the sense that they are spaces of continual transformation. Not just of people, but also of the narratives that surround the institution. We want to be able to capture that dynamic. We want to be able to engage people across the world digitally in helping us to think about what objects might mean. Both to the people who create them and to those who use them.”
More items on display
The V&A East project will enable people to see more of the V&A’s collection than ever before, says Reeve, when these treasures are moved to the 150,000 square-foot former broadcasting centre building in the Olympic Park:
“Volume is what we don’t have at the V&A in South Kensington, which sounds strange to say because it’s such an enormous building. The volume [at V&A East] enables us to shift the dial in terms of what visitors can see and what they can then get at. Some of them are really big objects, room sets, architectural fragments.”
“We can form part of the display, part of the public network at the collection centre in a way that we would never be able to do otherwise. So the volume side of it is super important.
“And then the design philosophy side of it is very important too, the fact that it is retrofit. There is a sort of an industrial feel, it’s like a beautiful warehouse. There’s no reduction in design quality or finishing, but it is a warehouse. That feels quite on message with this idea of it being a creative sourcebook and developing, through design, a different atmosphere for a museum experience, a different tone.”
New possibilities at V&A East
Casely-Hayford talks about the kind of project that becomes possible with the addition of the new space and increased volume of the V&A East building:
“In America, I got for the very first time to see Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Fallingwater. That was astounding because it’s such an iconic building.
“Edgar J. Kaufmann, who commissioned Fallingwater, was a businessman who works in Pittsburgh, and his office is an exquisite installation. [It is] a sort of condensed version of many of the architectural tropes that you see explored at Fallingwater, in this one exquisite space that was his study, in one of his stores.”
“He owned several different department stores, which went on to be bought out by Macy’s. He was hugely wealthy and his passion was architecture. And so this space, his office, was the space in which he conceived many of his incredible ideas.
“You get a feeling of this being an environment in which he was negotiating with an architect who is absolutely at the top of his creative abilities, one of the greatest architects who ever lived. And he creates something which is visually quite modest, but which is utterly exquisite.
“We could recreate that three-dimensional space within our collection centre. I can’t quite believe that I’m working on a project in which that is a possibility. And to be able to have that alongside great 15th century pieces like the Altamira Palace ceiling, which was this amazing Spanish carved wood ceiling that hung above a nobleman’s palace.
“To have these pieces that you can actually see in three dimensions, that relive these moments from history through actual pieces in our collection, that is so special. We can do that, but we can also tell the stories that will help to animate them. It’s going to be unique and I can’t wait to see it unfold.”
However, moving the collection from its existing home to the new building is no small feat, as Reeve explains:
“It is a big part of the project and it’s a massive challenge. As an organisation, you wouldn’t necessarily choose to move your entire non-display collection from A to B. But if you’re going to go to all of that trouble, you might as well end up in a place which transforms what you’re able to do in that collection.
“So we’ve managed to shift our mindset as an organisation on this. It has shifted from something that was a headache into a massive institutional opportunity. But we’re talking about four lorry loads of V&A objects a day for a year, going from Blythe House to East London.”
“It is a huge logistical exercise, but symbolically as well it just feels so powerful and exciting. We are lifting all of those objects, taking [the collection] to a better place where it is going to be seen more, used more and it’s going to inspire more people. It’s a headache, but it’s also it’s a great prize at the same time.”
African art and design at V&A East
Casely-Hayford has also previously spoken about wanting to increase the V&A’s focus on African art and design and to help build up that particular collection. The V&A East project will be a good opportunity to do this, he says:
“The V&A has a fantastic collection of African objects and one of the things that I think that we can do with these new spaces is to make more of them.”
“We have big things, like the Altamira Palace ceiling. This Spanish in origin, but its themes link us back to North Africa to the Berber, who were some of the people who inspired that work. So, we want to be able to create those connections across geography and time that include Africa, which is so often excluded, particularly from pre-20th century art history.
“We have exquisite things. We have gold weights, some of them are the size of a fingernail but exquisitely carved. And we have amazing textiles, some of my favourite pieces in the collection. We want to get those pieces out on display, and to tell that story. Alongside all of the other stories from around the world that we can tell.”
Communicating through art
“But we also want, as we go forward, to try to recalibrate some of the areas of weakness within the collection,” says Casely-Hayford. “We can do this by adding to them, by bringing some contemporary work into the collection that will tell some of the complex stories and help us to convey some of the difficult things that many people of African descent deal with.
“There are great contemporary artists helping us to navigate our way through issues around Black Lives Matter. And around areas of colonial legacies, of enslavement. Art is a good way of helping us to find a path through some of these difficult issues.
[Art] can make it possible for us to convey the difficult, the contested and the troubling
“Many of the people who come into our space will be young. We’re hoping lots of schoolchildren will visit. Some of these difficult and contested histories might be hard to navigate. It’s often art which offers interfaces into some of this. [Art] can make it possible for us to convey the difficult, the contested and the troubling, in ways that are palatable for a wide range of audiences.
“So we want to deploy a variety of techniques of looking through our collection and shining a light on particular areas that that may need augmenting over a period of time. We also want to build new areas of connection. We want to make exhibitions that show how contemporary African art is transforming global practice and helping us to think about some of the big issues of the day.”
The V&A East project also gives the institution a chance to collaborate with other organisations.
“We’re on a park with the BBC, and with UCL [University College London] who we have signed an MOU with,” says Casely-Hayford. “We’re going to collaborate with them on doctoral theses and research, which is exciting.”
“But we also want to find ways of collaborating with Sadler’s Wells and London College of Fashion. And then further afield, with other institutions across Britain and also to look at international collaborations
“It is really important for us to find ways of bringing other voices to this bit of London. We want to become a window on the world, a way in which we can travel and engage with contemporary and historic practice from right across the globe. And we want to engage with it in ways that will mean that people can come and they can leave a little bit of themselves behind. They can tell us what they think about these places and their experiences.”
A desire for change
“Look at how Gen Z are interacting with the world. They want to see change. They want to feel that their generation will not leave behind the same problems that they’ve inherited,” says Casely-Hayford.
“We want to create a space in which they can see, through a cultural lens, a way in which they can contribute, in which they can shape their own futures but also the futures of others.
“I think it’s an exciting time and it’s the right place in which to do this. It is one of the most diverse and culturally interesting parts of London, but also one of the most creative. I think if we bring all of these constituent parts together, we can step away. Or we can just allow the way in which people use creativity to dynamize conversations. We can allow it to transform our spaces
“That’s the really exciting thing, this isn’t about us imposing on others what they should think. It’s about others coming into our spaces, making something of themselves and making something of our spaces which wasn’t otherwise there.”
“There are some obvious routes to partnership and some tried and tested models,” adds Reeve. “But we should discuss opening ourselves up to the possibility of new types of partnerships. Ones that we don’t really have an experience in and don’t understand yet. That will come from conversations and getting to know different partners in different contexts.
“It not necessarily always a comfortable position for a museum like ours to be in. To not know the answer, to not to be in control of the agenda. But that’s why it’s so important and so full of potential.”
V&A East timeline
In terms of the expected timeline of the V&A East project, Reeve says:
“We still hope to be opening the new collection centre at Here East in 2023. We still hope to be opening our new museum as part of East Bank in 2023 – 2024. But we’ve got to be pretty patient over the next six months. We need to understand how construction projects of this sort can carry on in a COVID world. And then, hopefully, post-COVID.
We want it to be open as soon as possible. Because as soon as we open it, we start to see its magic
“The benefits of the project will be there whenever it opens. We want it to be open as soon as possible. Because as soon as we open it, we start to see its magic.”
The power of art
Both Reeve and Casely-Hayford believe that art is something which has the power to both transform people’s experiences and to provide comfort. Particularly in such a challenging year.
“I find it very difficult to single out a favourite object,” says Reeve, of the V&A’s collection. “It’s a different one on a different day of the week. For me, one of the special things about working here is the spaces, and the ability to drift from one space to another. For instance, from European sculpture into religious sculpture into glass or silver or Renaissance.”
“We talked about the sort of tone and atmosphere of spaces. I can see and indeed feel it myself, even still from time to time, that some of the public spaces at the V&A can be quite forbidding, because of the scale and the volume and the grandeur. But at the same time, I find it quite comforting and almost cosy to be there.
“So for me, it’s that variety and it’s the objects in the spaces that have been designed to house them. Because of the depth and the breadth of the collection, that kind of history almost just sort of seeps into you. For me, that’s more important than a single object.”
Bringing objects to life
“My first experience of the power of art was when my aunts would visit when I was young,” says Casely-Hayford. “They would always bring amazing cloth from Ghana, which is the place of my father’s birth. And they would talk about these pieces of cloth like they were alive.
“It was this sense of how you could animate an object, how you could bring it to life. They could read these pieces of inanimate material like you could read a book.
“It was exquisite to watch, as much as to learn from them. And for me, there is a piece of fabric [in the V&A collection] which is very evocative of that time. It’s a piece of striped woven cloth that was collected in the 1950s, and it’s from southern Ghana.
“It was a moment of love and learning, and it gave me a sense of what a museum could be. A space in which you could learn, but you could do it in a nurturing environment. One that left you with a real sense of being part of a community that stretched back across time but also that would empower you as you step forward into the future.
“And I’m hoping that that is what young people will take from their visits to our institution. That this is a place that they can come back to and [a place] that will give them a sense of both of something of their heritage, but also of what they can do to transform the futures of us all.”
Images kind courtesy of the V&A Museum.