Tristram Hunt: ‘In the era of fake news, museums allow a better understanding of truth and history’

Hunt photographed in the new Exhibition Road Quarter

Tristram Hunt photographed in the new Exhibition Road Quarter. Photograph: Pål Hansen for the Observer

Powered by article titled “Tristram Hunt: ‘In the era of fake news, museums allow a better understanding of truth and history’” was written by Rachel Cooke, for The Observer on Sunday 18th November 2018 10.00 UTC

Touring the Victoria & Albert Museum with Tristram Hunt, the former Labour MP who has been its director since 2017, is a bit like visiting Hamleys toy store with a small child: so many rooms through which to dash, and so many wondrous objects in each of them. I’ve asked him to show me the one thing he would like most to pinch or borrow for a while – something that stirs his heart, as opposed to something he’s merely practised at talking about – but I see now that this was perhaps a silly idea. His frown says it all. How could he ever choose?

In the splendid Cast Courts, where he takes me first, he talks at speed of the Victorian passion for copying stuff, gazing all the while at the lower half of the museum’s monumental plaster reproduction of Trajan’s column in Rome – and for a moment I wonder at his ambition (also, at the size of his house). This, however, is merely a detour, one he seemingly cannot resist. Next, we visit a famous millefleurs tapestry of 1500 from Flanders, in which a hallucinatory unicorn prances, dazzling even now in its field of red, green and blue – “The president of Ghana loved this,” he says, confidingly – and then the medieval galleries, where he shows me a ravishing reliquary casket from 1200, shaped like a church with a gabled roof and made of brilliantly hued Limoges enamelwork.

Finally, en route back to his office, we swing by the jewellery galleries where – just for fun, you understand: he wouldn’t wear it himself – he points out Beyoncé’s Papillon ring by Glenn Spiro, a confection of diamonds and green tsavorites whose wings are designed to flutter with every movement of the wearer’s hand. The jewellery galleries, all glass and chrome, have the flashy feel of an 80s designer store that makes him laugh out loud. “Crack open the champagne,” he says, or words to that effect, and suddenly I do feel quite thirsty. If he’s like this when he’s sober – you could fry eggs on his enthusiasm – I can only imagine what he’s like after a drink.

Hunt’s office, preternaturally quiet after the buzzy throng of the galleries, could belong to the don he might have been (his PhD thesis was about Victorian urban culture and civic pride, and for a time he lectured at Queen Mary University of London): beside its high windows stands the vast desk that was once used by the V&A’s founder, Sir Henry Cole (the museum was established in 1852), and opposite them, a mahogany bookcase. “You’ll see I’ve got some Staffordshire ware,” he says, pointing to a wall-mounted display of blue and white dishes. Until he resigned his seat, Hunt was the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, and he still retains warm feelings for the city. Only the other day, he tells me, “all the potters” came down to see the display in the ceramics gallery marking the centenary of the birth of Susan Williams-Ellis, the founder of Portmeirion, one of Stoke’s most famous names. He misses nothing at all about politics, he says. But he does pine a little, sometimes, for “Stoke life”.

It’s now late afternoon. Though he shows no sign of flagging, this has been a huge day for the V&A and all who sail in her. Early this morning, a press conference was held at the Olympic Park in Stratford at which the museum finally revealed its plans for its long-awaited expansion into east London as part of the legacy of the 2012 Games, a move backed to the tune of many millions by both the government and the mayor of London. I, too, attended this event, arriving with expectations that could hardly have been lower. Walking in the rain from Hackney Wick station, through a landscape that might best be described as dystopian (aggressive graffiti, endless cranes, a feeling that every new building had been plonked down with little care or thought, and almost no human beings to be seen), I felt nothing but scepticism; culture isn’t a panacea, and it should not be treated as one. But then Hunt and his colleagues began speaking, and showing us pictures, and my mood lifted – and lifted. By the time I left, I was practically floating.

Hunt as a Labour party parliamentary candidate in Stoke-on-Trent, April 2010.
Hunt as a Labour party parliamentary candidate in Stoke-on-Trent, April 2010. Photograph: Lorne Campbell/ Guzelian

V&A East will create two interconnected sites in the Olympic Park: a brand new museum on the Stratford Waterfront, and a new collection and research centre 10 minutes’ walk away. Due to open in 2023 as part of the £1.1bn culture “powerhouse” that is known as East Bank, and where the V&A will join new outposts of Sadler’s Wells theatre and the BBC, the former will be designed by the award-winning architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, and will host a unique and unprecedented partnership between the V&A and the Smithsonian Institution in the US, the world’s largest museum complex; the building’s structure will take its inspiration from a Balenciaga dress. The latter, a fantastically clever reconfiguring of part of the vast shed that was once the Olympic media centre, will house 250,000 objects and 917 archives, and will be designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the team who created the High Line elevated walkway in New York. This “immersive cabinet of curiosities… a creative sourcebook for all” will be open to the public, who will not only be able to see conservation work in progress, but objects not currently on display, among them the backcloth designed by Natalia Goncharova for the 1926 Ballets Russes London production of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s office for the department store magnate Edgar J Kaufmann.

“Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes,” says Hunt, when I tell him of my about-turn (in conversation, he almost never uses the word ‘yes’ without repeating it multiple times). “Of course, the initial thought was just for a single building: a huge museum with storage on the same site. But the money wasn’t there; the economics didn’t work. Then we thought of a smaller museum on the waterfront, but a problem remained because we have to get out of Blythe House [the V&A’s current repository and archive centre in west London, which the government is to sell off as housing]. So we started thinking about this huge shed [Here East, where Studio Wayne McGregor, the UCL/Bartlett School of Architecture, and Matches, the luxury fashion retailer, have already taken space]… The energy, the synergy…” Suddenly, everything coalesced.

But a project like this, however ambitious, comes with many pitfalls. “The challenge is not to seem like a big foot cultural organisation,” he says. At the press conference, there was much talk of diversity, inclusivity and local engagement. But how does an institution ensure that such things become a reality? “Well, we’ve been in Bethnal Green [home of the V&A’s Museum of Childhood] since the 1870s, and for the Bengali and Bangladeshi community there it is a trusted brand; there are established networks. In fact, 47% of the children who visit the V&A are from black/minority backgrounds. But in the long term, it’s about workforce as much as audience. In terms of that, diversity is really, really poor. The excitement of this project is in growing a curatorial work force, in encouraging local talent.” He hopes V&A East’s appeal and influence will extend far beyond the London boroughs that surround it. “From here, we connect to tough places on the Essex/Suffolk coast. People are not going to come all the way out to South Kensington, but they might get a train to Stratford.” It’s a case of ensuring that people know the museum “is theirs”, that they “connect” to its displays, that its exhibitions are “engaging”.

What’s in it for the Smithsonian, though? Listening to David Skorton, its urbane and witty secretary, at the press conference, I couldn’t help but wonder what he and his colleagues make of Stratford and Hackney Wick. Do they ever look at one another and say: you’re a long way from Kansas now, Toto? (Among the Smithsonian collections are the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.) “Well, it is a remarkable commitment,” says Hunt. He jokes, as he did earlier at the press conference, that the first item he wants the institution to lend its British partners is the space shuttle Discovery, currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. “But they think they can learn from the V&A’s approach to exhibitions. The V&A aesthetic is something that they like, that connection to design. They also like James Smithson’s idea of art and science being together.” (Smithson was the British scientist whose estate was bequeathed to the US on his death in 1829, in order that an institution be founded in Washington “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”.)

The partnership is, he thinks, particularly important at “this sketchy moment of Anglo-American relations”. What about Brexit? Did it cause any wobbles? “There have been endless moments of jeopardy – ups and downs – but never on Brexit. From their perspective, it hasn’t come up.” What about from the V&A’s side? What impact has Brexit had so far? “We’re doing the business stuff. Will we get our stock in? Will our shops be affected? Around 130 to 140 EU nationals work in the museum, predominantly in visitor experience [ie as gallery assistants], but also in curatorial. Worst case scenario, we would face a [recruitment] challenge, but I think that will work itself out.

“The broader issue has to do with the attractiveness of London as a place for people to build their futures, and other museum directors do say they are seeing a falling-off in applicants for senior and curatorial positions. What I say is that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this. My predecessor was German, the director of the British Museum is German. We are much more open than our continental equivalents. In Italy, they’ve passed a law to stop foreign nationals from running museums.” (This isn’t true, though last year an Italian court did overturn the appointment of five museum directors, one of whom was foreign; the judges also called into question the culture ministry’s decision to appointment foreigners to these roles.)

Inside the Kengo Kuma-designed V&A Dundee, which opened in September.
Inside the Kengo Kuma-designed V&A Dundee, which opened in September. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Is there any danger that with this project, the V&A’s recently opened new museum in Dundee and its outpost in Shenzhen, China, the institution might overreach itself? He shakes his head. “Each museum has to have its own logic,” he says. “We’ve got no desire to produce franchises around the world. Dundee is in partnership with the universities and city council; China is only a five-year programme. But South Kensington is first among equals. There’s something very particular about this place: the spirit of the building informs the meaning of the institution.

“We won’t allow Stratford to be new, and this to be old. We need to keep the energy here, because it has been quite dusty at periods in its history. In the 20th century, many museums became overly introverted and scholastic. One of my predecessors, Eric Maclagan [1924-44] once said of himself and the keepers: ‘We all breathe a huge sigh of relief when the public leaves the building.’ But in the 19th century, Cole was hugely ambitious: [the museum would be] the book that’s never shut. The V&A helped to set up the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham Castle, the Potteries Museum in Stoke; it worked in Sheffield. A strong national remit. Hopefully, we’re going back to that.”

Hunt, whose delicate, youthful looks bring to mind some ill-fated poet of the first world war, is patently happy running the V&A – he hopes, he says, to be in the job for a long time to come – and it seems in some ways to have transformed him. I interviewed him briefly when he was an MP, and I felt (surprise, surprise) that he wouldn’t quite answer my questions. But though he insists now that he must not break civil service impartiality rules when it comes to politics, there is a sincerity about him now that borders almost on the dreamy. “It’s a May or June morning at about nine o’clock,” he says, slipping into the present tense when I ask what the best thing is about life at the museum. “You walk along the Hintze Sculpture Galleries, and you see the Madejski garden and the Italianate frontispiece of the original entrance. You’re surrounded by the meaning of the place and, without wishing to sound like Maclagan, you have it to yourself.” He laughs, breaking the spell. “Ninety minutes later, the space is full – and it’s always nice, that energy after the quiet.”

How badly did he want the job? I’m guessing he wanted it very badly indeed. “Yes-yes-yes,” he says. And was he surprised to bag it? After all, he’d never worked in a museum, had no curatorial experience, and had never managed a large team. “There was a moment before I was elected a member of parliament when I was going to apply to become the director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester. So there were strong passions there already. It was this wonderful concatenation of events. I was frustrated with the situation in politics, which for me was a double negative: I was a Labour MP, so I was opposed to the government, but I was not in the same line of march as the leadership of my party, which meant that every day I woke up and I was basically against things. It was tiring. I wanted to leave. I saw that Martin [Roth, his predecessor] had stepped down, and I made some phone calls to see if it was done and dusted, or whether I could put my hat in the ring. It was incredibly stressful: two of the leakiest, gossip-iest worlds, culture and politics. It was very high risk over a number of months. But it wasn’t one of a number of applications I made.” He went through five rounds of interviews.

What’s the hardest part of the job? “Naively, I thought it would mostly be about objects. But it’s mostly about people. Politicians are sole traders, but now I’m part of a management structure with boards and committees and executive teams. Connecting with that has been a learning curve. Also, I always knew I would have to raise funds, but we have taken a 30% cut in public funding since 2010, and the challenge in terms of philanthropy and commercial sponsorship has been really demanding.”

Is it true, as I’ve read, that the younger generation of tech millionaires have no interest in museums and galleries? That they would rather use their money to, say, wipe out malaria than to secure mere objects? He nods. “It’s kind of worse than you think. I met the director of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. He’s a great director, and he said it’s hard as hell trying to get tech money into the museum. It’s ironic because the reason they [tech companies] love being in cities like San Francisco or London is because of the civic ecology, the public culture, and museums are a part of that. The reason you have talent going to Google is because those people want to live in these exciting cities.”

Now he has escaped it, what does Hunt make of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party? Should it, for instance, be opposing Brexit? “Now, talking about that would get me into trouble. What I can tell you is that I bumped into Jeremy Corbyn cycling in Finsbury Park the other day, and he’s very excited by Dundee, because he’s a big fan of Dundee. He goes on cycling holidays there.” He laughs, delightedly. What about the atmosphere in the party? Does it trouble him? He doesn’t hesitate. “I see ex-colleagues like Ruth Smeeth and Luciana Berger [Jewish Labour MPs], and they have had an absolutely foul time. We’ve seen the hard left and the hard right meet on antisemitism. There are forces that have been unleashed in public discourse which have hit particularly hard female Jewish MPs – and it is grotesque.”

And what does he feel about Momentum? Has it taken over? “I think membership of the party has been transformed, yes – though there was never a big Momentum contingent in Stoke. There were traditional…” What? Does he mean Trots? He grins. “Yes, traditional supporters of Trotsky who left the party when Kinnock denounced the miners’ strike, and who then came back in. We saw it under Ed [Miliband]: the institutional knowledge of Labour as a governing force has markedly diminished because of the different makeup of the party. It is a different organism from when I started working for it in 1996. But you just don’t know, do you? I mean, what will happen? We could never have predicted the rise of Corbyn, and so many other things.” He grins again. “We’ve had a lot of Momentum people come to see our Frida Kahlo exhibition, and they’re very, very welcome all of them.”

In the current political atmosphere, he thinks, museums are more crucial than ever. “In an era of fake news, parochialism, populism, and real concerns about the democratic balance between the street and parliament, they have a really important role to play. They allow for better understanding of truth and history. In the spaces here we’ve had debates denouncing our colonial collections, but within a framework of civil discourse. We also have a role celebrating and championing cosmopolitanism.” Does he worry about the effect of such things as identity politics and #MeToo on the museum? Is his institution able to resist what we might call the rush to offence? “You do have to resist those pressures. One of the joys of not being a university is the absence of the feverishness of debate. We are very clear and open about our colonial past, but we are not going to remove things.” In the galleries, there hangs a Victorian painting by William Mulready, The Toy Seller, in which a white child appears to shrink from the black man who is offering her a toy bird. “Would we have removed it? No. But the wording on the panel beside it was, I felt, clumsy, and we redid it.” One reason the Frida Kahlo exhibition has been such a hit, he thinks, is because it’s all about identity.

CGI of the new V&A East museum planned for Olympic Park at Stratford Waterfront, designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey.
CGI of the new V&A East museum planned for Olympic Park at Stratford Waterfront, designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey. Photograph: PA

In the first interview he gave after he was appointed director last year, Hunt suggested that it was perhaps a good thing for the V&A to be run by an outsider, rather than a museum professional; he spoke of the “myriad rituals and precisions of, as it were, the institution”. But he is not unaware of how his appointment looks to some. (As a friend said to me, sarcastically: “Ah, so he doesn’t want to be an MP any more? Well, here’s the V&A instead.”) Hunt is the son of Julian Hunt, aka Baron Hunt of Chesterton, a mathematician whose area of expertise is (his son tells me this with some amusement) turbulence, and who was made a life peer by Tony Blair. Tristram was educated privately, attended Cambridge University, and thereafter proceeded through life as if on oiled wheels, writing books (he is a biographer of Engels), presenting television documentaries for the BBC, and finally getting himself parachuted into Stoke as MP in 2010 (from 2013 to 2015 he was shadow education secretary).

Growing up, was he aware of his great privilege? “No, and that’s part of privilege – that you don’t feel privileged. It feels natural. If I’m honest, it wasn’t until I went to Stoke that I learned something completely different about Britain and class and opportunity.” At 44, he has already had several lives – and he’s big enough to admit why this has been possible. “It’s that classic thing of having the confidence to take risks that is born of a loving family and a good education. One should feel grateful about that.” Does his privilege have any impact on the museum’s attitude to its audience? My observation would be that the posher people are, the more likely they are to end up patronising those they regard as less well educated or well off than themselves, even though they’re ostensibly straining every sinew to do precisely the opposite (you see this in much of the BBC’s cultural output, for instance). It’s a form of nervousness, born of a certain kind of social unease.

Slightly to my surprise, he agrees absolutely with this. One thing Stoke taught him – apart from the fact that when canvassing he should always use the back door – was people’s sense of pride in aspects of their own history: “That was born of brilliance: the sheer excellence of the work produced by the potteries. We can have a debate about participatory curation, and we do want people to be more involved with displays, but I am a great supporter of our curators, and the knowledge they have. They’re the best in the world. Part of the significance of this place lies in that knowledge.” In Dundee, he says, people are queuing up to look at ceramics from the 1880s, Robert Adam fireplaces, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room – and why on earth wouldn’t they be?

Speaking of fireplaces. Gathering my belongings to go, I notice a tiny, floating shelf by his office door on which there stands an exquisitely simple teapot and two miniature cups, items that I now stop to admire. “Ah, yes,” says Hunt. “That’s my Korean corner.” He pulls a face of mock embarrassment. “You see, I secretly want to be a curator.” I tell him that I think there’s probably more to it than prettily arranging china, and as he laughs loudly in acknowledgement, I picture him for a moment at home, feather duster in hand, reorganising a mantelpiece. On it stands a small enamel church that may once have held the splintered bones of a saint. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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