‘If you don’t want a robot to steal your job, studying art and design is a pragmatic way to prevent it happening’

by Simon Tait
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We’re going back to Victorian times, and it might be the saving of us – from ourselves.
No, not some kind of Johnsonian neo-con yearning for empire, but a genuine proposition from a former Labour frontbencher, Tristram Hunt, who happens now to be the custodian of a Victorian social experiment that was a resounding success in its own context: universal design education and the V&A.
The V&A was set up by Henry Cole and his collaborator Prince Albert, the bicentenary of whose birth is this year, as a collection of design examples to teach artists, designers, children and adults, the importance of good design and the means of achieving it. It also gave birth to the Royal College of Art, really the Royal College of Design, and the rest of the South Ken museum/teaching estate.
The V&A is expanding exponentially. Last year it opened V&A Dundee, this week it announced a rebranding of the Wedgwood Museum at Stoke-on-Trent as “The V&A Collection at the World of Wedgwood” after the collection was rescued with the help of the Art Fund, and the other day work began on V&A East, part of the £1.1bn East Bank cultural development at Stratford East, which will “reinvent the V&A’s spirit - what we do, how we do it and what we do it for”. The V&A is also by far the largest lender of objects around the country.
In 2016 it was the Museum of the Year and spent its £100,000 prize on reviving its former Circulation Department taking design exhibitions around the country, re-emerging as DesignLab Nation which has so far travelled to Coventry, Blackburn, Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield and Sunderland. 

Tissot's portrait of Henry Cole for Vanity Fair

“We’re going back to the design school movement that gave birth to this place in the 1830s and 40s” Hunt said. “It always seems to me that running an institution like this well means to think why it was founded, and it’s as much to do with V&A East (working on displays with the residents of the five surrounding London boroughs) as focussing on design and technology around the country” Hunt said.
“There’s a real threat to design in this country. We saw a responsibility to step in”. So over the next five years the V&A will be in touch with every single D&T teacher at every school in England to recruit them to its new V&A Innovate programme, aiming at 11-14-year-olds and getting them to opt for taking D&T at GCSE. On Wednesday 150 teachers turned up at South Ken for the launch event (
Alarmed by the lack of official recognition in education of the importance of the creative industries – the sector is by far the fastest growing in the economy, worth over £100bn a year, contributing £23bn in GVA, growing at a rate of about 8% a year and employing 140,000 - Hunt said it was time to reapply old methods. The Victorians saw a responsibility for education in every corner of a child’s life: “School was important, but so were parents, scouts, cubs, churches, chapels, mosques, trade unions; education was a much broader process, and now we think everything should be in schools”.
He’s worried that opting for Ebacc has meant writing art and design out of the education picture, bad enough in itself but worse in the impression given to those often most responsible for guiding kids into careers.
“The biggest challenge is parental concern” he said, “partly because of tuition fees. The thinking is, why do arts subjects that land you with tens of thousands in costs which are not going give you a job?
“The point we’re making is that art and design are enabling subjects in a creative future, and in the fourth industrial revolution if you don’t want a robot to steal your job, actually studying art and design is a really pragmatic way to prevent that happening. 
“What’s so strange is that we've got a fantastic creative industry in this country with thousands of jobs being created, and we’ve got an education system that is stripping it out.”
And design education is not the only way in which museums can venture beyond their own turnstiles. As AI reported this week, Hunt also announced that the V&A is wading into foreign affairs with the first exhibition on Iranian art and design for almost a century. While sabres are being rattled and metaphorical (at the time of writing) shots are being fired over bows, the museum is negotiating with Iranian politicians and diplomats, as well as other governments with interests in the region, over the first show on Iranian design in this country in almost a century.
“At the moment when tensions between East and West seem only to be escalating this exhibition will serve a vital and important purpose in enabling audiences in Britain to learn more about the arts, design and culture in one of the world’s greatest historical civilisations” he said. “It seems to me more valuable as sanctions and the militaristic language escalate that we think about the narratives and understandings of that culture.”
And that’s what culture can do: bring sanity and thoughtful solution to problems of national and even international significance. 


Latest News From Arts Industry

V&A to defy Iran sanctions with exhibition

The Victoria & Albert Museum is to mount a major exhibition  about Iran’s art and design, in the face of a growing crisis between Britain, the US and Iran.

The exhibition, Epic Iran, looking at 5,000 years of arts and design through 300 objects, will be the first major British exhibition on Iran’s culture since a Royal Academy exhibition 1931, and is the subject of discreet negotiations with Iranian politicians, the V&A’s director Tristram Hunt said today. He said he hoped it would include loans from Iran.

“At the moment when tensions between East and West seem only to be escalating this exhibition will serve a vital and important purpose in enabling audiences in Britain to learn more about the arts, design and culture in one of the world’s greatest historical civilisations” he said. The exhibition is curated by Tim Stanley of the V&A's Asia department.

 Pictured is a detached folio from an illuminated 16thcentury manuscript of the Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp from The Sarikhani Collection in Oxford

The museum had had close discussions with the Iranian embassy, he said, and was working with Tehran’s museums. He is hoping for loans from Iran. “But it’s not easy” he said. “In terms of cultural relations and interests on each side the curators work together as professionals, but the landscape is not easy. Every week it becomes more challenging, and that means every week it’s more important to do.

“We are working with governments in Iran but with Russia and Paris and the UK, and it seems to me more valuable as sanctions and the militaristic language escalate that we think about the narratives and understandings of that culture.”

The V&A is also negotiating with the government of Ethiopia for the return on loan of objects which had been looted by the British during the siege of Maqdala in 1868 during the Abyssinia campaign of Sir Robert Napier. The objects, including a golden crown and chalice, were assigned to the museum and have been on almost constant display there since 1872. 

Hunt said the Ethiopian culture minister had visited recently and a memorandum of understanding had been drafted, with V&A curators expected to visit the capital Addis Ababa to see where and how the objects could be displayed. “Quite understandably” he said “they have a scepticism and distaste towards having a loan from an organisation which they think plundered the items from them, so I completely understand their political stance. We’re trying to work out a system which respects our legal obligations, and hopefully we can work thought that and get the items on loan to them.”

Epic Iran will be at V&A from October 12, 2020, to April 4, 2021.

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