Or is Tim Clifford too much of a good thing? To his advocates, he's the only possible saviour of the V&A's moth-eaten soul; to the trustees, the peopl e who really run the museum, he may be just too much his own man. PETER POPHAM reports. Portrait by GLYN SATTERLEY
The Victoria & Albert is one of the four or five greatest museums in the world, and it's in trouble. It is not the sort of stark, drastic trouble that befalls museums that are hopelessly ill-managed or starved of funds: the roof is on the way to b eing fixed, the place is dry and clean and neat. But relative to other museums of this calibre - the British Museum or the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Louvre in Paris - it does not prosper. It has lost its edge. It does n ot excite or amaze.

Attendance, which slumped to under one million per year after "voluntary donations" were introduced in 1985, rose to 1.4 million last year, but remains only a fraction of that enjoyed by the National Gallery or the British Museum, which draw about four million and six million a year respectively. New galleries - of Korean and Chinese art, glass, and so on - have received as many brickbats as plaudits. Fevered attempts to lure the non-museum-going public with exhibitions devoted to Elton John or Streetstyle have added fuel to a long-running controversy which pits populism against scholarship. The staff are said to have become inward-looking and committee-ridden. In short, the V&A has lost its pride and its world-beating cachet.

Various causes have been cited for these problems - the weak directorship of Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, excessive bureaucracy, heavy-handed and ill-informed trustees - but when Mrs Esteve-Coll resigns in the autumn to become vice-chancellor of the Universityof East Anglia, the museum has an opportunity to regain the lost ground.

There are several prime contenders for her job, including Timothy Stevens, assistant director (collections) at the museum, and the current directors of the Imperial War Museum, Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, and the National Maritime Museum. But manyart world insiders believe that, of the plausible candidates, there is only one man who has demonstrated the sort of flair and brilliance that could turn the V&A round.

I asked Robin Simon, editor of Apollo, the fine art magazine, who he thought should be the next director. "Tim Clifford," he answered, pausing half a second for thought. "Just ring him up and put him in." "Tim Clifford," said Anna Somers Cocks, managing editor of the Art Newspaper, almost as promptly. "He has a vast knowledge of both fine and applied arts, he has a large and nice personality..."

Timothy Clifford has been director of the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh for ten years. The work he has done there is dramatic. When he arrived, the spaces in the main neoclassical building on the Mound, under the castle, looked as most museums did in the Seventies, bare, spare, pared down. As he had done at Manchester City Art Gallery when director there from 1978 to 1984, he tried, as he puts it, "to return the galleries to something of their appearance during their heyday." But it is notas an antiquarian that Clifford is famous: he has nearly doubled attendance at Edinburgh since 1984, and is seen successfully to strike a balance between scholarship and showmanship.

In fact, Clifford's supporters hail him as the most brilliant museum director in the country - arguably the only man big enough for the task of transforming the V&A. Yet there is serious doubt as to whether he will get the job. The fear is that he may simply be too brilliant, too big a personality, to be acceptable to the trustees.

Trustees are new at the V&A. Until 1983, the director ruled the museum, answerable finally to the Department of Education but within the museum very much his own boss. The power of his advisory council was simply to advise. Under the director were the keepers of the department - ceramics, sculpture, painting and so on. Depending on the power and vigilance of the director, the keepers were either well-policed or answerable to no one. The fabric of the museum - including the chronically leaky roof - was the responsibility of the Ministry of Works.

With the National Heritage Act of 1983, all this changed. Lord Carrington, fresh from the Foreign Office where he had resigned as Secretary of State following his failure to anticipate the Falklands' invasion, became the first chairman of the V&A's trustees.

The trustees' task was to impose on the museum the Thatcherite values of accountability and good housekeeping. An early step was the introduction of ``voluntary donations'', after which attendance fell below one million, but more radical measures of reform had to await the arrival of Sir Roy Strong's successor as director. The trustees plumped for Mrs Esteve-Coll, who at the time was running the museum's art library. It was a stunning promotion, and she got off to an explosive start when, in February 1989, in the name of restructuring, she offered "voluntary redundancy" to nine of the museum's keepers, several of whom were internationally renowned scholars. Eight of them accepted - under various degrees of protest.

But although many of her critics have never forgiven Mrs Esteve-Coll for her purge, it turned out to have been an uncharacteristically bold act. (There are those who believe that it was an act dictated to her by the trustees, in particular, the new chairman, Lord Armstrong.) Never again was she to be so ruthless. Instead, her tenure has been marked by the gradual bogging down of the museum in bureaucracy. The achievements of her tenure have been the dull, plodding ones of the manager: to get the building repairs in train, to get the signage right, to make sure the place is spick and span.

What has gone missing from the V&A during Mrs Esteve-Coll's years is style. A case in point is the treatment of Canova's celebrated sculpture of the Three Graces. Rescued for the nation after an epic campaign and at a cost of £7.6 million, they have beenparked alongside the information desk and off to the side, as if in transit to somewhere else: three naked ladies stranded in the gloom. Yet the V&A has several other pieces by Canova and could have mounted a fascinating exhibition featuring all of them. But it was too much trouble, or no one thought of it.

The party held at the museum to celebrate the saving of the sculpture also went off at half-cock. Neither John Paul Getty (who donated £1 million) nor Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza (£800,000) were present. A director with style, or perhaps just old-fashioned good manners, would have delayed it until these two key figures were able to attend. For all its immaculate housekeeping, there is something sadly shabby about the way the V&A comports itself today.

n No such shabbiness besets the National Galleries of Scotland. Tim Clifford was the dynamo behind the campaign to prevent Canova's masterpiece from going abroad, and, as a result, Edinburgh and South Kensington will take turns to display it. Clifford's first turn comes in the summer: the Three Graces will be in place for this year's Edinburgh Festival.

"My approach to museums and galleries is not a bureaucratic one, but an intensely artistic one," he says. "My father wrote a book on the history of landscape gardening, so I spent a lot of time looking at country houses and gardens. One of the great delights of walking round an estate like Stourhead is the way that, as you walk around the lake, you stand with your back to a Chinese bridge and then you see a Gothic pinnacle and then you turn a corner and you have a wonderful temple. And each time a new scene beckons you, and a dialogue goes on between the objects."

Describing how he will display the Three Graces, he practically smacks his chops in anticipation. "It's going to be a stunning show...We'll put it in the middle of the gallery, where the collecting box is at the moment, so you'll have one nude female figure, the Medici Venus, building up to three nude female figures, the Graces, building down to two draped figures by Bardolini...At the other end, there'll be a huge photograph of the Three Graces as they were in the temple at Woburn Abbey..."

The artistic imperative has been behind all Clifford's initiatives at Edinburgh. When he arrived in 1984, the floors of the upstairs galleries were, he has written, "covered with grey Heuga felt carpet squares, the walls, shorn of skirtings and cornices,were hung with coarse tweed, doors had flush finishes and brushed chrome fittings, while the ponderous suspended ceilings penetrated the room like the bellies of airship gondolas." Clifford proceeded to rip all this out. "My philosophy", he says, "is always that you look at two things: you look at the architecture and you look at the collections. And you respect the architecture and you respect the collections and you put the two together."

Out went the brushed chrome, the varnished flooring, the porridge-coloured linen on the walls, the nondescript seating. Back - after an exhaustive study of the way things used to be - came cornices, skirting boards, felt covering of a deep red colour forthe walls, and red, buttoned leather settees. Paintings of the gallery as it was in the 1870s and 1880s show an incredible clutter of pictures almost blanketing the walls. Clifford has resisted reproducing such a jumble, but hangs pictures more densely than before. He threw out the ropes used to keep customers at bay and instead placed tables, chairs and settees, roughly of a period with the pictures above them, strategically along the gallery's walls. n "I believe God is in the details," he says, and at Edinburgh these have included the warders' trousers, for which he designed a special tartan, and the buttons on their jackets, for which he was also responsible - "They show the portico of the National Gallery with a sunburst of enlightenment behind it."

Museum director is not one of those jobs that brings instant celebrity, but even people with only a desultory interest in museums are finding it difficult to remain entirely ignorant of Timothy Clifford. For reasons both welcome and unwelcome, he keeps getting caught in the spotlight: for spearheading the campaign to save the Three Graces, for example, but also for putting the campaign at risk by dropping careless remarks about filial feelings within the Getty family. He is the man who has lavished money and loving care on the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh - but then infuriated the citizens by declaring that he wanted to shut it down, so that a new gallery could be opened in Glasgow. (The volume of protest persuaded him to promise that the gallery would not close.) An earlier brush with controversy came when he sold his personal collection of Old Master drawings for rather more than half-a-million pounds, so that he and his wife Jane could buy the wing of the baronial Scottish castle, complete with a 65-foot long drawing room, in which they now live.

Clifford is a man accustomed to getting his own way and doing things in his preferred style. At the V&A, however, he is up against Lord Armstrong. The former Head of the Home Civil Service and Secretary of the Cabinet, Lord Armstrong was the man who attained sudden fame when he fought the publication of Spycatcher through the Australian courts and became inextricably linked with the phrase "economical with the truth".

The way he sees the job of director reflects his long career in the Civil Service. Speaking of the V&A's next director, he stresses one quality above all others. "Obviously," he says, "I would like someone who will be effective in the task of managing the museum: much of the director's time has to be spent in the actual management of the museum...It's quite a big management responsibility - there are several large buildings, none of which is young..." n n What awes one about the V&A, and not merely fromthe perspective of a manager, is that there is so much of it. Like its peers across the world, the V&A is a magnificent anachronism, the cathedral of a cult of global plunder which has been falling out of fashion since the Empire began to slip away, andwhich is now so emotionally remote that university art history departments, which, in theory, should be turning out the great directors of the future, produce almost no one with the appropriate skills or sympathies.

So the stewards of such treasure houses tend today either to be mere managers, or, if they are on what should be the museum's wavelength, there is something freakish or monstrous - or, at the least, anachronistic - about them. n Most people seem to agreethat the last but one director of the V&A, Sir John Pope-Hennessy, who died last November, fits squarely in the monster category. "Definitely a monster," says Anna Somers Cocks, who joined the V&A in 1973, the year before "The Pope" (as he was universally known) moved to the British Museum. "He was snobbish, cruel to his subordinates and much feared." Pope-Hennessy cheerfully professed that he preferred objects to people. But no one doubted the depth of his commitment to the museum.

How much of a monster is Timothy Clifford? If monstrousness can be handed on like a baton, he may have acquired it from Pope-Hennessy, who was responsible for all the key breaks in Clifford's career. "The Pope appointed me to the V&A. The Pope appointed me to the British Museum, and he was my referee for Manchester and Edinburgh," Clifford told me. "I was extraordinarily fond of him." But Clifford, though formidably clever, is not a fearsome figure; nor, unlike Pope-Hennessy, is he the least bit shy.

What unites the men is a passion for their work. Clifford calls himself "a magpie" and has been collecting compulsively all his life - "first milk bottle tops, then sea shells and butterflies" - then, starting in his teens, the Old Master drawings which he later sold to buy his home.

"What you've got to realise", said someone who has been working closely with him in recent years, "is that he's 200 years out of context. Imagine him in doublet and hose." Yet although he talks, for example, about the work of artists at the court of Henry VIII as vividly as if he had just arrived back from dining with them, his feet are firmly in the present. Having restored the gallery on the Mound to its original appearance, he is now in the midst of planning a new museum in Edinburgh dedicated to thework of the contemporary Scots-Italian artist Eduardo Paolozzi. Its decor is expected to harmonise with the thoroughly modern work it will house.

Pope-Hennessy was descended on both sides from colonial administrators, and is said to have run the V&A very much like a colony: taking full personal charge of the institution, stamping round the building each morning, his assistant at his side, dispensing instant justice. Clifford's involvement in his museums is similarly unbounded: beadily spotting an underspend in the Property Services Agency's budget and cajoling the civil servants into releasing the money so he can snap up period furniture for the galleries; throwing an Ottoman Empire fancy dress party to mark the opening of an Islamic exhibition. And all the time grinding on with the book which he intends to be his magnum opus, detailing the links between fine and applied arts from Henry VIII's time to the present.

Asked recently for his opinion of Tim Clifford, Lord Armstrong ventured, "He is clearly a very able man and a fine scholar. If he is the best person, then he will get the job. And if he needs to be controlled, then I shall have to learn how to do that."

Already, even before the job applications are in, one senses these two profoundly different types, the ultimate Whitehall mandarin and the flamboyant connoisseur, squaring up to each other. Whether they will have the opportunity to join battle for real depends on how successful Tim Clifford is in persuading the trustees that the V&A is in desperate need of his attention.