Story of the V&A
Not many people know that the V&A was originally created as a design school. It opened in response to the fear that Britain was falling behind its international rivals in design and creativity. Following the success of the Great Exhibition, the school developed into a Museum in 1852. Its founding principle was to make art available for everyone and inspire British designers and manufacturers. It was called the Museum of Manufactures.
In 1857 the V&A moved to its current site in West London and was renamed South Kensington Museum. Its collection quickly expanded to include metalwork, furniture, decorative art, fine art and textiles. And forty years later in 1899 it was renamed the V&A. Curators continued to grow the collection to include art nouveau furniture, ceramics, glass, dress, silver, ironwork and photography from around the world. The collection now spans over 5,000 years.
Tim described it as an ‘institution for the people’, firmly connected with the commercial world of design from its very beginning. A few little known facts - the V&A was the first museum to offer a cafe and to use electric lighting.
The V&A brand
According to Tim, the start of the 20th century was a low period for the V&A. A time when it lost touch with its founding goals and became elitist and inaccessible. To turn things around, in 1988, the V&A hired ad company Saatchi & Saatchi to create a TV and print ad campaign to attract visitors to the museum. The ads were very out of synch with the branding of today - they downplayed the exhibitions and collections and focused on the V&A’s catering offer. The campaign’s famous strap line was: ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’.
A major turning point for the V&A was when it started a new programme to refurbish its spaces. This led to a new ad campaign focusing on the beautiful interior design and architecture of the South Kensington building, with the new and improved strap line of ‘Inspiring. Beautiful. Free'. The V&A still use these adverts today, interspersed between exhibition campaigns.
Blockbuster exhibitions and touring
A pivotal moment for the V&A was when it produced its Hollywood costume exhibition, combining fashion with fantastic audio and visual content. This set the bar for future exhibitions like David Bowie is and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Underpinning these blockbuster exhibitions was a rigorous research process to produce the best content possible. Another moment was when the V&A started touring exhibitions internationally in 1992. It now has one of the largest touring programmes of any museum in the world.
Since opening at the V&A in London in 2013, the David Bowie is exhibition has toured to five international cities and has been seen by over 1m visitors worldwide, making it on track to become the V&A’s most visited exhibition in its history. It’s due to go to Tokyo and North America next. The exhibition had 312,000 visitors in London, meaning that more people saw it outside of London than within the capital. This is what makes the V&A a truly global cultural brand.
This was hot on the heels of the 2004 exhibition Vivienne Westwood, which toured 11 venues across 10 countries and was seen by more than 844k visitors.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was another blockbuster for the V&A. However sadly the Museum doesn’t have permission to take this exhibition on tour, so if you didn’t catch it the first time, it won’t be back.
This is a hugely exciting time for the V&A; it’s a time of huge physical expansion with developments in Shenzhen China, Exhibition Road and a franchise in Dundee. Plus the V&A is launching a new site in the Olympic Park in Stratford alongside University of the Arts, London College of Fashion and Sadler’s Wells.
This brings my story full circle. This move to the east of London (a melting pot of design and creativity) firmly reconnects the organisation with its original mission to inspire designers and manufacturers. And it doesn’t harm that it is next to Westfield, which has 50m visitors each year.