In International Archive Week, a reminder of the V&A’s act of cultural sabotage – intention or incompetence?

It is deeply ironic that in this International Archive Week, when we are celebrating archives around the world, the UK is trying to come to terms with the fact that the V&A are effectively sabotaging the Theatre and Performance archives they hold in trust for the nation.

I reproduce below a statement from the President of SIBMAS without apology, for it says far more eloquently than I could what the issues are, and illustrates how this has been mishandled from start to finish.

The Statement from the President of SIBMAS reads as follows:

The V&A museum announced the end of its internal consultation process on 17 May 2021. Since then, several people may have received an upbeat email from Director Tristram Hunt about the cuts, including myself.
Possibly the most telling sentence in the email relates to his description of the nature of the collection: 
“The V&A’s long-standing structure based on material specialisms will be protected, with dedicated Theatre & Performance curators with unique expertise and knowledge of the collections.” 

This sentence highlights the complete lack of understanding of the nature of the performing arts collection and how it works. The V&A’s Department of Theatre & Performance is categorically NOT based on a material specialism, but by subject.

To date it has been looked after by a dedicated team of curators, archivists, and librarians. Their individual specialisms and professional knowledge, coupled with subject knowledge, made it one of the most effectively managed and accessible performing arts collections, anywhere.

Much is made in his email and V&A press releases of the process of consultation. Strangely, the V&A in their press release “thanked external parties who shared thoughtful and constructive points of feedback during consultation”. Despite 20,000 people signing the SIBMAS petition and many people sending letters, SIBMAS was not invited to have a single conversation or meeting with the V&A. It is our understanding, that APAC, STR and TAPRA were also not invited, nor have representatives of the theatre and performance industry. Stakeholders like us and the wider performing arts industry should have been involved in the consultation process, in order to help the museum to find the savings it needed to make, whilst preserving the integrity of the collection, maximum staff knowledge and continue to be an international leader for performing arts heritage.
 
I would like to remind everyone, that from the very beginning of this entire process, there was to be no Theatre & Performance Department. It was to be absorbed into the work of new departments by period and geography. After the SIBMAS petition, concern from many other sectors and extensive media coverage the V&A was forced to consider a compromise returning to the largely material specialism applied within the museum. The final plans of merging Theatre & Performance with Furniture, Fashion, Textiles at least keeps some idea of the separate needs of the performing arts alive, however it will come with a fundamental split of the collection materials and loss of expertise.
 
The Theatre & Performance Archive and Library Collections, including Gabrielle Enthoven’s founding collection of playbills donated in 1924, will be transferred to the expanded Research Department, which will be home to centralised V&A Archive and Library units. These transferred collections are the heart of performing arts history and a key resource for researchers, theatre practitioners, family, and theatre historians.
 
In summary, we fear that the dedicated service to documenting the UK’s performing arts comprising of all forms of heritage: archives, library, objects, audio visual materials together with an expert group of specialists working closely together has now been abandoned. A divisive approach of separating curators, archivists and librarians is being applied, losing the close working relationship within a team. In fact, it was always seen as the strength of the V&A’s performing arts collections to have such a cross-fertilisation of expertise amongst its team, which in turn elevated the strength of its collections and knowledge.
The decision to proceed with the separation of a dedicated team and the care for the collections across several departments risks it becoming a collection with no vision or strategy. For people like us on the outside, it is simply confusing. If a researcher wants to access a theatre company archive, where do they go? Who do they contact? If someone wants to donate their personal archive covering their theatrical career, where do they go? What if the archive has objects, such as a costume or award in it? How will it work? If there had been a direct consultation with us, we could have asked these questions.Reference is made to losing only 2-3 curatorial staff and changes to the management structure, whilst T&P archive staff are apparently mapped over. This I think, does not include job losses in the wider former department. At this stage, and after months of no true consultation, our confidence in the museum’s management is somewhat shattered. We request to see evidence how expertise has been retained in the new structure and how the V&A plans to take serious responsibility for the UK’s National Collection for the Performing Arts in an internationally recognise way.
 
UNESCO define performing arts heritage as being a very distinct discipline. This is for a reason: performance is intangible, and as such it requires a complex mix of materials to collect, capture, preserve and promote it, ideally with a cohesive and dedicated approach.
SIBMAS along with other organisations and individuals will be looking out for how things progress.

But also: Please we ask V&A Museum to start a proper conversation with stakeholders like us.

Alan R Jones
President SIBMAS

And so, in the next few weeks, when contracts are terminated and lifetimes of expertise are lost forever, how will history look back on the V&A? What it has done will disrupt every future author or student of theatrical history across the globe who attempts to identify, locate and view archive material which will play a significant part in determining the quality of their analysis. For when they try to access the V&A archive in future, there will be fewer staff with less time and less experience, a broken up and re-filed collection which may or may not still be accessible. All of these arbitrary changes will in turn affect the quality of research and therefore the quality of examination future students and writers will make of our unparalleled theatrical and performance heritage.


Please write to the V&A to help save the Theatre and Performance Department!

SIBMAS are asking everyone who cares about theatre and performance to send a letter to Tristram Hunt, the Director of the V&A, to demand wider consultation before any of the proposed savage changes are made to the status of their world-renowned Theatre and Performance collection.

On 13th April, SIBMAS said:

Following an update from Dr. Tristram Hunt regarding the reorganisation of the departmental structure in the museum it is now proposed that Theatre & Performance will be in a department with Fashion & Furniture. While this is a step in the right direction with Theatre & Performance being at least recognised as an entity we have concerns about this possible new structure, not least about the loss of specialist jobs and knowledge resulting from it. To try and effect further change we ask you who are reading this to write again, to support the call for a consultation with collaborators and stakeholders external to the museum about the future of the Theatre & Performance department.

SIBMAS has created two draft letters one for Donors and One for Supporters. Please use this information to craft your own letter that best suits your own experience/position in regards to the collection.

You can quickly download one or both of the letter templates (which make it very easy to complete in just a few minutes) at the SIBMAS website here

If you can CC a copy of your letter to president@sibmas.org , and by so doing, you are agreeing to give SIBMAS permission to publish your letter / name. SIBMAS would like to publish a selection of emails on their website.


Please send your open letter to Tristram Hunt, Director, V&A Museum, t.hunt@vam.ac.uk

THANK YOU!


Who are SIBMAS?

Since 1954, SIBMAS has been the international network of cultural heritage in the performing arts. Spread across 35 countries around the world, they gather individuals and institutions documenting circus, dance, film, opera, theatre and puppetry.

What does SIBMAS do?

They promote research in the performing arts, facilitate networking among their members and share resources about their specific collections and the performing arts in general:

Conferences: SIBMAS organises biennial conferences focusing on challenges and recent developments of current practical interest for our members
Networking: SIBMAS encourages genuine collaboration and invests in spreading best practice between its members
Newsletter: a quarterly newsletter, providing up-to-date news and information about the activities of SIBMAS and our members
International Directory of Performing Arts: a database with detailed information about performing arts collections, searchable by organization name and/or category of member institution ranging from national libraries to puppet museums
Proceedings: SIBMAS provides print editions of the conference papers of our conferences


Take a look inside the V&A’s Theatre and Performance archive which is under threat

Since the appalling decision to greatly reduce access to the V&A’s Theatre and Performance collection and fire two-thirds of the specialist staff and curators, there has been a justifiable outcry from academic institutions and the general public.

While this is to be expected, many of this blog’s readers have contacted me to ask about the archive as they have never personally visited it themselves, and so find it hard to fully appreciate what treasure lies within its parameters.

And so now you can go inside the collection, thanks to a short film called ENCOUNTERS IN THE ARCHIVE which takes you inside the collection, to look at some of the costumes, with expert curators discussing the works and their significance.

The film lasts 17 minutes. ENCOUNTERS IN THE ARCHIVE was conceived and produced by Donatella Barbieri and filmed and edited by filmmaker Netia Jones.

I am confident that after just a few minutes of this fascinating viewing, you’ll want to ask all your friends and colleagues to sign the petition to save the collection from being locked away from public sight potentially forever.

Watch ENCOUNTERS IN THE ARCHIVE here

Please sign the petition to save the V&A collection and its staff here


LATE ADDITION – Lord Smith has tabled a question in the House of Lords, which you can find here . While useful for drawing attention to this attempted cultural vandalism, if you share my wary opinion of our corrupt parliamentary system you may well agree with me that this has very little real value.


UPDATE

Statement upon the proposed restructuring & job losses at the V&A Theatre & Performance Department. 30 March

Statement

The V&A internal consultation process with its staff is concluding at the end of March.  To my knowledge there has been no consultation with the industry or related bodies in the SIBMAS community. This is very disappointing for a museum with the reputation of the V&A, who say they value their performing arts collections, which are internationally so important.
 
SIBMAS continues to have concerns about what is going on as suddenly the Theatre & Performance Department, which are part of a distinct unit/department are now tied into the National Art Library review, when there is no obvious connection between National Art Library and Theatre & Performance Department.  Indeed, National Art Library does not collect performing arts library materials. It is the Theatre & Performance team of experts that cover it within their remit in a different location & departmental structure. This is evident through V&A annual reports and museum’s collection policy. SIBMAS finds this confusing, and we ask for clarification, over potential jobs losses or furloughing of Theatre & Performance staff.  We continue to ask for the V&A to have a consultation with SIBMAS & the industry it serves. In such a consultation we would emphasize once again that the V&A should make sure the Theatre & Performance Department is saved as an actual specialist entity within its restructuring.
 
The V&A management and Board of Trustees have been appointed well after the Theatre Museum closure in 2007 to save money.  They may not be aware of the great uproar at that time. It was seen then that the Theatre Museum closure was the sacrificial cow to save the V&A money. Theatre & Performance should not take disproportionate cuts in any reorganisation.  I believe that they have forgotten that performing arts collections needs a different approach to the decorative arts and crafts, to keep their unique character, as recognised by UNESCO.

Alan R. Jones ( President of SIBMAS )


Exhibitions and events with a theatre theme to enjoy across the UK – now and soon!

COUNTRY-WIDE From 13 to 22 September, there are over 100 theatre-related events going on across the country during Heritage Open Days. Most likely a theatre near you will be opening its doors to offer tours of the buildings. Intrigued? Then take a look at their website here where you can search what’s happening near you.


LONDONV&A – Discover the creative process behind designing for performance, from costume to set design at Staging Places, which celebrates the diversity of British performance design across spaces and genres. This display, in collaboration with the Society of British Theatre Designers, presents costumes, set designs, models, photos, drawings and puppets that reveal the creative process behind designing for performance. And best of all, its free! Running now until 29 March 2020. More information here


Stockton Globe

STOCKTON ON TEES – Preston Park Museum – A fascinating exhibition about the life -and rebirth- of Stockton’s magnificent Globe is now on. The building has had a splendid history. Opened as a 2400-seater cinema in December 1935, the building closed in 1996 and has lain empty for over 20 years, falling into terrible disrepair. Thankfully Stockton Council have saved the building and it is undergoing extensive modernisation works, with a planned reopening in Spring 2020. Explore the story of the Globe and its restoration in this fascinating exhibition.  Find out about the famous acts – including Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John – who played at the venue. Plus, discover the exciting future for the newly restored Globe. The exhibition is on now until October 6th at the Preston Park Museum. Admission into the museum is paid but the Globe exhibition is presented at no extra cost. More information here. And to find out more about the reborn Globe, see their new website here.


Collins’s Music Hall on Islington Green – sadly long gone!

LONDON – ISLINGTON MUSEUM – “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay!” is an exhibition about Islington’s many popular Music Halls. For over 100 years, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the borough’s many music halls and variety theatres entertained generations of Islingtonians. Each venue promised a unique evening’s entertainment and local residents and visitors would drop in to see their favourite ‘turns’. Explore a time when variety was definitely the spice of life. The exhibition is free and a range of attached talks, shows and walks have been curated to further visitors’ enjoyment. On until 22 October. More details here