V&A Director – With a renewed mission, museums can play a vital role in our recovery

This article was first published in the Evening Standard

Unvisited museums “dwindle into very sleepy and useless institutions,” thought Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He, like me, loved our South Kensington galleries brimful of families, tourists, artists, and mooching teenagers. How sad he would be to see the locked doors and deserted courtyards across London’s great museums amid the anti-Covid lockdown.

The question now is, what will the post-Corona cultural landscape look like? For no one is quite sure whether months of quarantine and screen saturation will result in a desperate desire for social interaction in the presence of authentic artistic treasures; or whether lingering fear of contagion will leave our exhibitions deserted.

This is the challenge facing London’s arts organisations: how to rebuild public confidence in physical connection and cultural enrichment in shared spaces.

Covid-19 has achieved what the Luftwaffe never managed: the insidious elimination of the artistic, creative, and theatrical ecology of the city.

The very spirit that makes us live in London — and bear the dirty public transport and high cost of living — has been put on hold. At least during the Second World War, the National Gallery was able to showcase concerts and some masterpieces. “Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever to see beautiful things,” as a correspondent to The Times put it.

Today, we do have some digital replacements for all the darkened galleries. Thanks to the inventiveness of curators and social media handlers, millions of new visitors have accessed collections in exciting new ways across Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and web content. Seemingly distant cultural institutions have engaged with communities in a more equal, engaging and fruitful manner than before.

In turn, the public has reimagined the role of a museum and its objects. My favourite social media meme has been the #GettyMuseumChallenge to recreate celebrated pictures with home props — with Gustav Klimt The Woman in Gold brilliantly reimagined as Woman in Biscuits.

Part of the reason why museums have invested so heavily in digital over the last decade is that seeing a Donatello or Rothko on a tablet makes viewers want to experience the real thing. The more content we put online, the more people come through our doors. And the last 20 years has seen an incredible renaissance for London’s galleries, with the capital commanding the list of the world’s top 10 art attractions.

Once dismissed as necropolises, museums have been the engine for rebranding Britain, growing our creative industries and powering London’s tourist economy. Think of the building of Tate Modern or the Great Court at the British Museum; the blockbuster exhibitions on Alexander McQueen, David Bowie and Christian Dior at the V&A; or the transformation of the Horniman Museum and William Morris Gallery. No wonder, four out of five tourists to the capital highlight culture as their main reason for visiting.

This remarkable success story is now at risk. Because behind the growth is a business model which Covid-19 has crippled. As governments have systematically cut public funding to national museums, we have become ever more dependent upon paid-for exhibitions, membership schemes and commercial income — which will be hard to continue in an era of social distancing.

At the same time, philanthropy is falling as swiftly as the stock market. This means much-needed gallery renovations are being stalled and exhibitions cancelled right around the world — with collection objects currently stuck in ports, abandoned art fairs and shuttered museums.

Museums should use the long journey back to normality to renew their mission, connect with new audiences in new ways and help reconnect the public with material works of profound creativity — the sculpture of Donatello; the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron. And do so collectively. Natural nervousness will surround future social interaction, and so museums can help us appreciate, in the balm-like presence of great art, the vital, human importance of being present together.

Well-visited and well-managed museums must serve, as Cole might have said, as energetic and meaningful institutions in this fraught and isolated age.

Tristram Hunt is director of the V&A