Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

London Hogs Cultural Capital

2nd August 2015

In 1998 I won the competition to masterplan the V&A.  The economic idea behind the Master Plan was simple, to remake the existing museum in 50 projects for £50 million over ten years, instead of building Daniel Libeskind’s extension, the Spiral, which even then was an £80 million project. The V&A would celebrate design across the widest range of disciplines and would employ many more companies, rather than building one building with fewer trades in larger packages. Thus it would distribute the spoils rather than put all its eggs into one basket.  It would encourage more benefactors to donate to a range of smaller projects. There would be grand openings every year, creating marketing opportunities and a real buzz.  And it wouldn’t suck the life out of any other capital spend in the museum for at least five years.

This fundamental idea has underpinned the V&A’s Master Plan (now called FuturePlan) as it has unfolded over the last fifteen years.  Although the cost has more than doubled over the ensuing period the museum has made that back in increased and repeat visitation – because there are so many more reasons to keep coming back. The Plan’s first three projects were a new Welcome Space in the Dome that has been the focus for parties, with a beautiful desk that becomes the bar for openings;  one of the best museum shops in the world;  and a new restaurant in the original 19th century dining rooms.  This was topped off with a new courtyard garden described in 1998 exactly as it turned out, and around which the museum ‘spins’.  And then there are the refurbished galleries, the learning centre, and a myriad other projects.

The beauty of this model is that it is incremental, flexible, iterative, provisional and changeable;  and that overspend is distributed and manageable.

But although never built the Libeskind Spiral has come to epitomise a cultural default position, our growing addiction to massive capital projects. The reasons are numerous. These ‘grandes projets’ respond to a compulsion that we have to build, without which we feel that our time has no value.  They are a multiple whammy, a honey pot that seems to spread nectar.  Museum directors and senior colleagues, patrons, architects and politicians all get something out of them – fame, prestige, peer recognition, career definition, proximity to creativity, power, the privileging of wealth and power and gongs – and the more lavish the building the higher the fees.

The V&A is a model of the exception.  The museum has stayed with the programme even though it has now opted for building a new temporary exhibition space where the Spiral would have been – although on a more modest scale and also making a far more powerful contribution to the public realm of Albertopolis, with a new courtyard that flows into Exhibition Road and also into the central courtyard.

Meanwhile our addiction to capital projects in the Capital shows every sign of increasing with inward capital flows, a fourth runway, HS2 and Crossrail.  And the budgets are mindboggling.  A new concert hall for Simon Rattle could be £400 million – Hamburg has built one and so has Paris so we had better have one too, and never mind that far fewer people go to classical concerts.  The numbers go on.  The Garden Bridge at £250 million, a lovely idea but arguably in the wrong place and clearly a vanity project for the Mayor.  But the project has been proposed by Joanna Lumley and who is going to argue with a national treasure?  The London Museum will relocate to Smithfield, for a good £250 millllion, at a guess, and way more than the disposal of its existing site.  That’s before we include projects at the Science and Natural History museums. These are today’s published numbers and it is almost a rite of passage for the budgets to increase since it is in the contractor’s interest and also in the designer’s;  more expensive equals more fees.  Meanwhile our epoch is characterised by the most expensive must-have, globally sourced materials possible, titanium, copper, marble  and intelligent-glazing.  Sustainability hardly comes into it any more.

So add together the Bridge, the London Museum, Olympicopolis and the proposed new concert hall, to name four new London projects, and you are already north of one billion pounds of cultural projects. (And this on top of the Tate Gallery extension that has already cost £215 million.)

This raises a number of issues.  Firstly they are funded partly out of lottery tickets.  The HLF sustains many jobs and businesses in the cultural sector – but the relationship between the location of those who purchase lottery tickets and where it is dished out is like first past the post versus PR.

Secondly none of these projects will ever ‘wash their faces’ without subsidy, patronage, and a hefty HLF grant or one-off cheque from the government. Then there is the question of whether London really needs all these new buildings and in these locations.  Who will come? I remember with the millenium lottery fund seeing umpteen projects with the same visitors predicted by the consultants going to each project. Are the numbers really there?  Who has the time or the money? The tourists on a three day break aren’t going to schlep out to Olympicopolis and the locals may not be regular Smithsonian goers.

And there is something else.  Over the last two years I have been working on projects in Bath, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Manchester, Paisley, Salisbury, Winchester, Windermere and York, to make lovely museums with national collections of international importance.  These projects are of value to our heritage, to who we are. They will increase visitor numbers, supplement schools and the curriculum, covering science, archaeology, social history, technology, textiles, design and poetry.  They are all regeneration and public realm projects, and provide a cultural heart to their city, town or hamlet.  They could all be completed for less than the price of the Garden Bridge.  And if that isn’t startling enough, the sum of their projected visitor numbers in a stabilised year is in excess of four million people.

(The image at the top of the page is from the new galleries at Salisbury and South WIltshire Museum.)