The museum as a multidimensional compass in time and geography – the Brooklyn Rail

The creation of the British Museum in the 1750s was never content to build a collection of exceptional objects, to build beautiful galleries or to bring together brilliant curators. Our national museum project began as our nation was taking shape, as the constituent nations that came to represent the UK established a difficult national modus operandi. The British Museum represented in its founding aspiration the intellectual instantiation of a new national collective voice and ambition, a desire to present and question the possibilities of the burgeoning British Enlightenment and a broader imperial agenda. The new museum redefines notions of time and geography with Britain as the global voice, engine and catalyst. And when, in the 1850s, a generation of radical innovators sought to rejuvenate this national museum paradigm, their plans were again shaped not only by a yearning for great buildings and objects, but by an evolving understanding of l Empire and Britain’s Role in the Changing World. National museums rarely limit themselves to their content; they become anchor points for new narratives, opportunities to reconsider history and formulate new futures. I have always seen museums as multidimensional compasses with the power to relocate us and anchor us in geography and time.

After a few years of living in the United States, I returned to Britain in 2020 for containment and to a nation that had changed dramatically. I came back to be part of a new project, working on the creation of a new national museum and collection center: V&A East. It has meant the creation of a museum at a time when time is again being recast. It has been a strange time to start a new role in the arts, a time when I both felt the vulnerability of the creative industries and appreciated their strength. I saw this when we desperately needed it. I was a witness the unique power of the arts to bring us together, offering catharsis and inspiration. The arts have seldom, in my memory, felt more important, more useful – and also more contested. It seemed like the right time to invest in a new museum infrastructure, to build a new place of comfort and reflection, so that we could question the collections, the narrative and our relationship to our past and our future.

We have taken the conundrum of losing our old collection center at Blythe House and turned it into a proposition that innovatively responds to the needs and opportunities of the moment. We are creating a new type of collection center at Here East, a space that will revolutionize access to the V&A collection, providing an unprecedented universal and free platform from which to tell new stories, collaborate in building new stories, renewing historical paradigms. 260,000 objects, 900 archives, 360,000 books in a single building, with its open central space, glass balustrades and glass floor, to allow visitors to feel physically immersed in the body of the collection.

In addition, we will provide the workspaces, tools and advice necessary for visitors to study, interrogate and reuse our collections in new ways. It is not just a cutting edge institution that will serve artists and academics; we want to build something that will help catalyze young ambitions and transform the lives of some of Europe’s most culturally underserved communities by focusing on the creators and creating important new ways. Driven by a timely ambition to inform and inspire and energized by the observation that we do not have all the answers, it will be a shared and collaborative enterprise. With this will naturally come a willingness to loosen control of narrative, to find ways to interrogate and negotiate historical perspectives and narratives with those we serve. Suddenly, this will force us to reconsider history and our relationship to its construction.

It is an interesting time when opportunity and need coincide; when the V&A has an extraordinary unique opportunity to build a true warehouse of experiential art and design and combine it with an experimental gallery and a partnership-based exhibition platform, to create a campus for the imagination, forging a space of account and reconciliation in which we can recognize complex and difficult stories, but also negotiate new relationships of equity, empathy and openness with cultures, communities, artists and creators of the world.

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