Mark Jones: An ace chap with a sharp new museum attached

The director of the V&A is highly regarded, well connected and, after only six months in the job, is about to open the luxurious £31m British Galleries to an expectant public. Is he lucky, or what?
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It is easy to imagine Mark Jones as a schoolboy. The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum would be a rather earnest, self-effacing child, the kind who would collect stamps, or might be found gazing at glass cabinets in the museums of South Kensington. And indeed the young Mark Jones – or Mark Powell Jones as he was then, before the Old Etonian and Oxford graduate traded in a little of his poshness for a common touch – would spend quiet afternoons in the huge temples to Victorian taste. But he was lured to Exhibition Road by the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Natural History Museum and the Davy miners' lamp of the Science Museum; he never once entered the portals of the V&A.

It is hardly surprising. For far too long the V&A was a fusty, dusty maze of a place, with a jumble of artefacts drawn from every culture and age, poorly lit and amateurishly labelled. It seemed to be inhabited by rather dowdy curators and visitors, the sort of melancholic Mitteleuropa ladies you might find in the novels of Anita Brookner, drawn to South Kensington as much for lemon tea in its Polish cafés as the Bed of Ware or Canova's Three Graces at the V&A. The idea that the museum was a place to enjoy glamour or luxury, style or genius would have been revolutionary.

Now the revolution has happened. This week, the V&A's £31m British Galleries will open to the public. Funded by lottery money and private donations, their gorgeous artefacts – glittering silverware, fine china, lush velvet clothing, burnished candelabra, intricate carvings by Grinling Gibbons – offer a visual guide to the economic, social and artistic history of 400 years. It is a moment to sound the trumpets and put out the bunting. The shabby, spinsterly great aunt of a museum has had a makeover and become the sharp new kid on the Exhibition Road block.

Best of all, on the day the British Galleries open, entry becomes free once more. The admission charges that caused visitor numbers to plummet to less than a million a year have been abolished.

It will be a moment of triumph for Jones, and it will prove how much luck and timing have to do with success. For Jones arrived at the V&A only six months ago, while the galleries have been planned for the past six years. Jones, 50, was not the most likely candidate for the job, although he had made an excellent fist of running the National Museums of Scotland, including opening a new museum in Edinburgh, over the past six years.

This is not to say that he is not ideal director material; the post of head of the V&A is one of the great Establishment jobs, and Jones is classy material. But the V&A is not a sinecure; it is one of the toughest jobs around, and recent incumbents have fallen foul of politicians, trustees and curators, sometimes all at once. And then there is the public to please as well. So, has Mark Jones got what it takes to succeed?

His career in museums began after postgraduate training in history of art at the Courtauld Institute. An advert for an assistant keeper of medals at the British Museum came up – "I needed a job; I didn't know anything about medals" – and he was taken on by John Pope-Hennessy, later head of the V&A. He spent 18 years there, developing a lifelong passion for medals and devising several exhibitions of the kind that financially hard-pressed trustees and politicians love: they make use of existing collections, are cheap to set up, yet are popular with the public.

In 1991 he moved to Edinburgh, much to the surprise of the Scots, to run the National Museums of Scotland, where he showed that he could make things happen. While at the helm he oversaw the £55m project to build the new Museum of Scotland, for which he had to raise £18m. For a seemingly diffident man, this might seem a painful part of the job, but apparently glad-handing is something which Jones rather enjoys. He and his wife, Camilla (they have two sons and two daughters), became familiar figures on the New Town party circuit.

In London the trustees of the V&A are banking on him producing similar results. If the British Galleries do one thing, they show how tatty the rest of the museum is. Running the V&A is as much about housekeeping as scholarship; roofs need repairing, electrics need rewiring, windows replacing. The museum has 145 galleries and it costs about £2m to refurbish one. Jones, using a 10-year master plan by the architectural consultant Stephen Greenberg as his guide, wants to make the courtyard garden the focal point of the museum, open up internal views that have since been blocked up and build Daniel Libeskind's tower of exploding cubes, called the Spiral, to house contemporary collections. The director, who once stood as a Labour candidate in local elections also speaks fluent New Labour: he wants better access to the museum via online links and regional branches.

It is just as well that he employs such language. Government approval is much needed by the V&A, which was damned as stuffy by a National Audit Office report and by the then culture secretary, Chris Smith, who claimed that people didn't know what it stood for and gave it six months to improve. Jones, who relishes its boundless variety, says he knows what it is for: "On one level, people come here just to enjoy the objects. But essentially we are here to explain the decorative arts. The collections provide us with our opportunities and our purpose. We know people are interested in decoration and they see objects in a sophisticated way. We see this from the way they respond to programmes about décor. They can enjoy and learn more here."

Jones will not only have to get on with politicians, but with trustees and curators, too, if he is to avoid the director's jinx. The V&A has been a graveyard for several promising careers. Roy Strong's directorship was soured by the controversy over the cutting down of the courtyard's cherry trees and its sponsorship by Pirelli; Elizabeth Esteve-Coll caused uproar with her sacking of expert curators and her crass slogan "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached"; while Alan Borg, Jones's predecessor, brought in compulsory admission charges, oversaw a rapid decline in visitors and fell out with the chair of trustees. There have already been hints of tensions between Jones and the staff, after he urged them to contribute to the funds to refurbish the British Galleries out of their own pockets.

There were similar complaints in Scotland, when an audit revealed that staff were stressed and lacked motivation and satisfaction. It led to supportive letters to national newspapers from former colleagues, claiming that "none of us will forget him rolling up his shirtsleeves and sweeping the floor alongside us in the rush to get the new museum [of Scotland] open on time". He was, said his backers, a man of "vision, intellect, and energy".

His return to London to head the V&A led to comments that he was not quite top-rank material. To prove the critics wrong, just when the museum has finally turned a corner, will take all the vision, intellect and energy that earned him such loyalty north of the border.