The VA is the UK’s national museum of art, design and performance. Its collections span over 2,000 years of human creativity in virtually every medium and from many parts of the world. It was established in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition of 1851 with an express mission and purpose: to improve the quality of British design. This Great Exhibition of manufacturing from around the world, along with the findings of a government select committee, had combined to illustrate that British design was not what it ought to be. It was recommended that a collection, where people could see examples of design, and a design school, where pupils could be educated in the principles of good design, should be founded and hence a forerunner of the VA was established. Land was later purchased from the proceeds of the Great Exhibition and the VA was built on its current site in South Kensington. Not only did this new institution showcase good design through its collections and architecture, but it had visitor experience and learning at its heart from the outset. It opened in the evenings so working people could visit and at the heart of its grandest building was a café and a lecture theatre: a place where body and soul could be fed in an ornate temple of knowledge.
Today this mission continues. We aspire to be recognised as the world’s leading museum of art, design and performance, and to enrich people’s lives by promoting research, knowledge and enjoyment of the designed world to the widest possible audience. This has scholarship, learning and visitor experience at its centre. We were delighted to be awarded with the ‘Best of the Best’ at the Museums and Heritage Awards in 2014 in recognition of the VA’s transformation over the past few years, its innovative exhibition programme and its focus on bringing our mission to an increasingly wide audience. In this short article I will attempt to explain how this has been done, while ensuring that we support the original vision of 150 years ago.
One of the features of the last few years at the VA has been the ever more ambitious exhibition programme. Currently we are showing ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ and last year ‘David Bowie is…’ for which another Museums and Heritage Award 2014 for ‘Temporary or Touring Exhibition’ was won. These exhibitions showcase the most astute scholarship in an inventive and immersive environment. They are both exhibitions and choreographic experience. They are intended to both inform and delight, to bring together the most iconic, renowned and well-crafted objects within an environment that embodies the spirit of the maker or ‘subject’ through sight, sound and experience. In ‘David Bowie is’ for example, visitors experienced hand-written lyrics, set designs, album artwork and stage costumes accompanied by an evocative Bowie ‘soundtrack’ delivered through headphones triggered by sensors as visitors approached the appropriate object. Having progressed through each era of Bowie’s creativity, people emerged into a ‘concert’ where costumes, music and projections the height of a large house created an extraordinary finale. While we strive for excellent scholarship and staging, we also have been spending just as much time on the less visible side of operations and organisation. No matter how good the show is, if people cannot get a ticket, if they are put in the wrong queue, if the queues are confusing or too long and if the exhibition is hot and overcrowded, all of this hard work can come to nought and visitors can leave with a bad impression. Hence why a huge amount of care and time has been put into the less glamorous aspects of managing queues, predicting ‘dwell times’, proposing comfortable yet sustainable limits for ticket sales and identifying ‘pinch points’ in the exhibition where we need to plan for large numbers of people to dwell for significant amounts of time. With innovation and popularity comes risk, but ‘David Bowie is’ was seen by over 310,000 people at the VA and at the time of writing nearly 1 million people worldwide have visited as part of its international tour. From ‘David Bowie is’ we have learnt valuable lessons for McQueen, which we are actively applying now.
In 2017 these exhibitions will move to a new, underground, purpose-built exhibition space, topped by a new entrance and courtyard, with a brand new volunteer and digital welcome at our Exhibition Road Building. Over the past 15 years the VA has been gradually reinventing itself through a project called FuturePlan and over 70% of its public spaces have been renewed. Extensive public consultation has taken place to ensure that target audiences are at the heart of these developments, which reveal the quality of the original buildings, provide beautiful environments for the collections, interpretation developed with audiences and to make the museum physically and intellectually accessible to everyone. FuturePlan has seen the renovation of over two thirds of the museum’s 140 galleries, some 50 capital projects have been completed in a period of 15 years and over L170m has been raised. As for the new Building, not only will this create new spaces, but a new entrance will naturally re-orientate the VA estate in what is arguably the most significant development since the Museum’s opening 150 years ago. The challenge will be to open and deliver the new spaces, but also to plan what it means for the rest of the building and for our visitors’ experience of it.
Another way in which we have been focusing on the visitor experience is through the Learning Programme, which now caters for 200,000 learners per year, up from 150,000 three years ago. At the essence of this programme is a desire to illuminate design practice, to engage real designers in delivering our activities and to be a conduit between the collections, the public and the world of creative design. An example of this is ‘Making It’, an annual careers day for young people aged 16 to 24 who take part in workshops, talks and ‘surgeries’ with practicing designers, to get portfolio and careers advice and practical tips on how to set up their own business. This event is attended by around 2,400 young people and is partly curated by CreateVoice, our young people’s collective, who host events on the day and advise us on the inspiration they need so that the event has a real pertinence and relevance to their lives.
The above projects very much express the essence of what we have always been about: inspiring the makers and consumers of design. But they also express a determination to constantly improve the visitor experience. As one of the first museums to open in the evenings 150 years ago, we are mindful of keeping to this legacy. We are also seeking to export this notion to sites beyond South Kensington. In the next few years we will open a VA Museum of Design in Dundee, a brand new museum in the Olympic Park, and a VA Gallery at the Shekou Design Museum, China. It feels like an exciting time to be part of the VA as we look to expand our international reach, reputation and impact and to take the original mission of the museum’s founders to an ever broader audience both in the UK and overseas.
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