The past fortnight of frenzied shopping has led Bernard Donoghue, boss of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, to ask: “Why is H&M open, but not the V&A?” Or, indeed, massage parlours and gyms, but not the People’s History Museum or Castle Howard. You can watch snooker at the Sheffield Crucible, but still not enjoy the Ruskin Collection at Sheffield Museum. In France, anger at art’s long Covid has led to public petitions demanding an end to museum lockdowns and out-of-work actors staging theatre sit-ins.
Beyond the understandable frustration, with just three weeks to go until the reopening of museums and galleries, the question is what kind of culture do we want to return to? There are important insights from this year of plague, but we should be deeply wary of an elitist power grab seeking to hold on to thinned-out audiences, fewer popular exhibitions and an end to museums’ broader social and educational function. In short, an attempt to strip away all the progressive achievements of the last three decades in transforming the UK’s cultural landscape.
Of course, such a broader remit is going to be much harder with the catastrophic collapse in resources. The government has been very generous, but nonetheless museums have closed and more than 4,000 jobs have been lost. At the V&A, a £40m drop in revenue has led to redundancies and a passionate public debate as to how we future-proof the museum: curating our collections of fashion, photography, performance and decorative arts in a more chronological manner, or updating the materials-based departments? We have sought to retain the V&A’s unique ethos, while speaking to younger visitors interested in a richer historical context. It has been a turbulent period, made all the more difficult by the doors being closed and the museum community separated from its collections.
Yet if entry to physical sites has been barred by the pandemic, digital access has been transformed. The National Gallery offered online tours of its Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence captured a younger audience by embracing TikTok and the Frick Collection in New York built a loyal YouTube following through its “Cocktails with a Curator” soirees. Events that used to garner a few hundred visitors can now attract tens of thousands. Just as importantly, for museums with colonial-era objects, being able to share our collections more widely with new audiences across the global south has been profoundly important.
But the last year of unrelenting screen time has also exposed the cultural jeopardy of digital dominance. The more we understand about clickbait-driven content, the addictive allure of social media and the hidden hand of the algorithm, the more obvious is the connection to growing ideological division and sociopolitical groupthink. Online search engines have reinforced certainty, prejudice and chauvinism. Predictive capitalism based around the motto “if you like this, you’ll like that” has allowed big tech to narrow the boundaries of creative thinking and has served to make the attributes of museums – public interaction, scholarship, diversity, learning – more compelling.
I sense a keen desire to reconnect with the authentic and the physical. The lockdown success of The Great Pottery Throw Down, The Great British Sewing Bee and The Repair Shop has revealed the huge public enthusiasm for designing and craft. Museums and galleries serve as storehouses of ideas for artists, hoping to spark the imagination and ingenuity of contemporary makers. For simply nothing beats seeing in the flesh a Bernini sculpture, Lucian Freud etching, Wedgwood vase or Eileen Grey chair: to sense the materiality, watch the play of light, have some intimate feel for the presence of human endeavour.
What museums also offer is serendipity. Rather than Netflix telling you what to watch next, the joy of a museum is the mix of traditions, styles and materials. With that comes challenge and difference and uncertainty, all so important for the intellectual resilience of a healthy civil society. Against a worrying drumbeat of nationalism and populism, museums and galleries celebrate multiculturalism, exchange and cosmopolitanism. You only have to read Edmund de Waal’s wonderful new book, Letters to Camondo, exploring the history of a Jewish, Parisian family of collectors – “the Rothschilds of the East” – who founded the Musée Nissim de Camondo and were then butchered by the Nazis, to understand the significance of cultural collections and archives in the face of political extremism.
We are not in the 1930s, but through scholarship and exhibitions museums today have a role in transcending our brittle culture wars of identity politics and imperial nostalgia. On the one hand, we have some conservative thinkers misapplying the government’s “retain and explain” policy on public statuary to museum collections, which should always be open to change, to argue against any bust being sent to the stores. Our very purpose is to see how artefacts can be reinterpreted and redisplayed for new generations in new ways. Equally vocally, there are leftwing activists determined to dismantle public collections as part of a political reckoning with patriarchy, racial inequity and social injustice. Indeed, one Oxford don has recently decried museums as places “of extreme violence and cultural destruction, indexes of mass atrocity and iconoclasm and ongoing degradation” that should be taken apart with “a pickaxe or a jack hammer”.
Less histrionic, but more insidious is an elite, connoisseurly desire to hold on to the empty galleries and absent school parties. In the Art Newspaper, the critic Blake Gopnik has argued for no return “to the thoughtless crowding of pre-Covid culture” and urged keeping “the gloriously peaceful conditions” of the plague year. From the Hepworth Wakefield to V&A Dundee, from blockbuster Hockney exhibitions to Tate Artists Rooms, our museums have never been more open, democratic, popular and attractive. They have helped regenerate towns, transform art education and play a crucial part in nurturing the UK’s creative industry and tourism market. As the veteran exhibition designer Dinah Casson has rightly written: “The transformation of museums from the ‘dreary, dusty places’ they used to be to places that people want to be in, alongside objects they want to be near and ideas they want to understand and then share, has been extraordinary.”
So, at the V&A, we can’t wait to welcome the public back. We are reopening with three exhibitions – on Epic Iran; Alice in Wonderland; and Bags: Inside Out – and are keen to welcome as many visitors as social distancing allows. The culture we need back in our lives is inspiring, beautiful, unexpected and, above all, like Primark and Wembley Stadium, open.
• Tristram Hunt is director of the Victoria & Albert Museum