London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is restructuring its curatorial and research departments after heavy financial losses experienced during the pandemic.
The changes are expected to be devastating. Up to 20 per cent of the museum's curatorial staff, around 30 people, will lose their jobs, bringing the total number of jobs lost at the institution since September 2020 (when the museum began a consultation process with staff) to 140 out of a workforce of 980.
The V&A has said that it needs to reduce costs by at least £10m by 2023 following lost revenue experienced during the coronavirus crisis.
Under the restructuring, the museum will break away from its current methodology of dividing its collections by materials, and instead adopt a broadly chronological display.
The European and American collections will be merged into one chronological department: medieval through late 18th century; the 19th century to 1914; and Modern and contemporary. Another department will encompass sub-Saharan Africa and African diaspora art, design and performance, and the Asian collections.
Three cross-disciplinary, period-based departments for Europe and the Americas will also be set up, focusing on born-digital art, design and performance. “The proposals will enable new, collaborative ways of working and will strengthen our areas of expertise in national collections,” said a V&A spokesperson.
Meanwhile, a centralised research unit will be formed by uniting the V&A Research Institute, the National Art Library and the V&A Archives within an expanded department.
“We’re not retreating from any part of the collections,” said Tristram Hunt, the director of the museum. “The curators will be more stretched, it’s true, but I hope the chronological approach will lead to more synergies between them.”
Hunt pointed towards the decline in the museum's self-generated income caused by the pandemic's impact on ticket sales, retail and corporate hire as an explanation for the changes, arguing that the UK government's grant-in-aid only covered 40 per cent of the museum's annual running costs. “Our mounting deficit is because in 2020 we have had only about 20 per cent of the four million visitors we had previously, while this year we might reach 25 per cent. I think it may be 2024 before we get back to where we were before the pandemic”.
In spite of the difficulty the museum finds itself in, questions will be asked regarding the form that the cuts have taken. The loss of curatorial expertise will be significant, while doubts have also been raised regarding the process by which the restructuring has taken place. “It’s hollowing out the expertise of the museum,” The Guardian reported a museum “insider” as saying. “Experienced technicians who are invisible to the executive board of the museum are going. Very experienced conservators are leaving or have left. Some conservators and curators have already left on voluntary terms. The next wave is forced redundancies.”
The museum has denied that the high costs associated with its planned V&A East outpost in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford have influenced the cuts.
Focus will also fall on the decision to pivot to a chronological display of the museum's European and American pieces, and how this sits alongside the decision to roll the museum's Sub-Saharan and African diaspora art into its Asian collection.
The changes are also likely to prompt reflection upon the ways in which museums are funded, and their need to operate commercially in addition to receiving state funding. The allocation of government funds has been further complicated in recent days after the UK's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport hosted a summit with museum and heritage bodies regarding the treatment of Britain's imperial history in the public realm: the institutions are reported to have been reminded that they should remain impartial and not be beholden to a “vocal minority”. Fears have been raised that this issue may affect editorial independence and influence the allocation of funding.