V&A prepares to rejoin the modern world

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The Independent Online
THE VICTORIA & Albert Museum is making a radical return to the creed of its founding fathers as it celebrates its centenary, switching to concentrate on contemporary collections and away from merely archiving past creative successes.

Alan Borg, the museum's director, has pledged to revive the V&A's role as a patron of modern artistic endeavour.

The museum, like many of its counterparts, is concentrating on information technology and "access", the favourite buzzword of Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary.

But access costs. "It isn't just about people walking through the door," said Dr Borg. "It's about education programmes and informative labelling and, in the biggest museum revolution of all, the computer."

Information technology costs, too. Databases have the potential to transform access, bringing the vast stocks of the V&A into everyone's home computer or local library, transforming the museum into a warehouse to be explored via the internet.

But Dr Borg fears these demands are diverting the museum from the original intent of its founders, to support contemporary design.

The V&A was set up in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was first known as the South Kensington Museum. But on 17 May 1899, it was re-named in the Queen's honour. Its mission was to promote art and design and encourage the interest of the working man.

Dr Borg intends to return to that mission, away from the rather aristocratic image the V&A developed. "There was a time when many museums regarded visitors as a boring necessity," the director admitted. "People came to work at the museum and thought their whole life would be about Renaissance bronzes."

With budgets at a standstill or worse, curators were forced to see the importance of explaining what they did and why. "Now they realise they need to communicate this knowledge - and that communication is fun."

Dr Borg joined the V&A from the Imperial War Museum, which he turned from a dusty collection of war impedimenta into a dynamic gallery celebrating dramatic moments in British history.

The V&A had undergone a traumatic time under his predecessor, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, vilified for splitting the jobs of curatorship into management and research. For many, the V&A reached a nadir when she used the advertising slogan: "An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached".

Dr Borg believes museums are now doing exciting education work, maintaining a high level of research and production of publications, which is what he feels they should be doing. Entertaining and educating the public is not incompatible with top-level scholarship.

"The biggest worry is that there will continue to be insufficient investment and that the exciting programmes we have will be strangled at birth by a lack of investment," he said.

Dr Borg believes he could run the V&A for less than its present pounds 40m, pounds 28m of that from a government grant. "We could keep the museum going, stop it collapsing," he said. "But we wouldn't be able to do what we want to do and what the Government wants us to do."