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Happy Birthday William : An update and selection of comments from donors & supporters (23 April)

Today, 23 April, is celebrated worldwide as the birthday of William Shakespeare. The cultural legacy of the “Bard of Avon” is impossible to put into words but must include the fact that the UK’s performing arts heritage has a huge global profile. Of course, that heritage is now far more diverse and wide-ranging, covering all forms of theatre, performance, dance, and music.

It is therefore no surprise that people from across the globe have responded so passionately to the prospect of significant cuts to the V&A’s support for the UK theatre heritage. People are worried about access to the collections. They are worried that the V&A has a narrow conception of the performing arts and how it should be documented and collected. They are concerned about an irreversible loss of expertise, especially when the furlough scheme ends this Autumn. They fear that the promises made when the Theatre Museum was closed in 2007 are already being broken.

The statements received so far from the V&A have not reassured people. The plans to merge Theatre and Performance with Furniture and Fashion have not been convincing. The same access to collections is promised and quality of curatorial expertise and the same time as cutting staff members and reorganising a dedicated department into a smaller material-based unit, this simply does not add up. There is a danger that this restructuring will ignore Theatre & Performing Art as a dedicated discipline and as a UK wide national collection.

Therefore, to mark Shakespeare’s birthday, SIBMAS is sending to the V&A a selection of the comments made on the petition and in the open letters that we have been sent.

SIBMAS tries to speak for the community of those who care for the world’s performing arts heritage. But we cannot speak for all those who care ABOUT that heritage. We want them to speak for themselves, so please read the comments below.

We call on Dr Hunt to read and absorb these comments and to conduct a wide and meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders. You have an important role to play not only in maintaining the legacy of Shakespeare, but in ensuring that the UK continues to set an example in caring for all forms of performance heritage.

If you have not already sent a letter to Dr Hunt, templates can be found on the SIBMAS website.

 

Selected comments from the change.org petition

The Theatre and Performance Collections at the V&A provide an outstanding resource for academics, students at all levels, theatre practitioners and the general public. It has developed and evolved through the generosity and passion of individuals and institutions, and been cared for by specialists in the field of theatre history. The V&A must reconsider this restructuring which threatens the collections and the livelihoods and careers of many of its specialist staff. Such knowledge and commitment will not be easily replaced. Francesca Franchi

This collection is of national and international significance. It supports and inspires the work of academics and creative practitioners across the globe. Furthermore it continually attracts the attention and interest of the general public (as evidenced in the fantastic exhibition programme). This move would reduce access to – and the visibility of – these historically significant collections. Furthermore, it would result in the irreversible loss of the world-leading subject expertise represented by the specialist curatorial and archival staff who care for the collection and ensure that it remains accessible for research. Veronica Isaac

My father and mother’s main life work was donated to the V&A (The Theatre Museum and The Museum of Childhood). Much of the work is not suitable for general display but is of considerable academic importance and is stored away in controlled environment archives. It is critically important that there are dedicated staff who know, understand and appreciate these specific works and who can point enquirers correctly to the contents of these collections. Without such full time staff the works will just end up never seeing the light of day and remain stored in their environmental conditions. Robert Leacroft

This proposed action breaks the promise made when The Theatre Museum closed in Covent Garden. And losing specialist staff is just foolish. Their expertise is second to none. I proudly donated my archive to the V&A. This proposal feels like a slap in the face. David Wood

My mother, Patricia Hayes was a struggling young actress in the late 1920s and 1930s. She died in 1998. Amongst other things my wife found over 150 of the letters she wrote to her parents, sister, brother and friends describing her daily life struggling to find work and living hand to mouth as a very poor, young member of various repertory companies dotted around England, Scotland and Wales. There were also her adventures during the WW2 traveling across London and on trains across the country in the blackout with me as a tiny babe. There was much more stuff besides of enormous interest to anyone who would like to know what life was like for an actress 60, 70 or 80 years ago.

We were overjoyed when the V&A Theatre and Entertainment Archive dept. agreed to take and properly archive my mother’s documents and letters and keep them for posterity!

My mother’s material is just a tiny part of the enormous archived collection that my wife Elizabeth and I were privileged to visit a couple of years ago. We were so impressed with the amount of fascinating and historically important material that has been donated or otherwise collected by this department and also by the skill, dedication and care shown by Simon and other members of the little team who do such valuable work. It would be a crime to shut this department down. Richard O’Callaghan

Some years ago I lodged my unique professional theatre archive with the V&A Theatre Museum. The level of professionalism from the staff accessioning it was exceptional. This archive was given in good faith ‘in trust to the Nation’ to be available to future generations. I made the decision to offer this unique collection to the V&A due to its national status and international reputation. It was clear to me that significant elements of my archive deserved the status of being in the public domain rather than in a private collection. The V&A Staff agreed. The idea that such collections will no longer be accessible, never mind exhibited and celebrated as part of our ongoing cultural history and education is mind-numbingly irresponsible and disrespectful. The V&A should withdraw these proposals immediately. Peter Cox

I worked as Senior Curator (Contemporary Performance) on the collections for 8 years. I know first-hand just how vitally important the collections are. Hundreds of individuals have entrusted the V&A with their donated materials on the basis that they were giving to an institution that would value, care for them and make them accessible. Staff and volunteers over the years have worked incredibly hard to interpret and share those materials, I was personally particularly proud of Black & Asian Performance at the Theatre Museum: a Users’ Guide and other work we did in this area, as well as the National Video Archive of Performance. This is a unique collection and a leader in the sector. The Theatre Collection is vital within the institution precisely because it does something different from the fine and decorative arts, and demands a different kind of engagement, which is not just about galleries and objects. There are plenty of art museums, no comparable theatre collection, gallery and department in Britain. The threat to the department is also, as has been said, a betrayal of the promises made in 2007 when the Theatre Museum was closed. This appalling decision must be reversed! Susan Croft

It would be a criminal squandering of our deep and vast theatrical heritage to let this collection be dissolved. Why are we being shown so many delights in the ‘Secrets of the museum’ if these items are going to be either disposed of, disbanded as a collection or just packed up in mothballs again til god only knows when. Get the many talented people who are still as yet alive and of sound mind to curate this collection, and help the theatre industry, currently on its knees to revive and recover, feel proud and celebrate it’s contribution to the artistic vitality, and the general health and well-being of our nation. Allan Edwards

 

Selections from open letters sent to Dr Hunt:

On behalf of all my current, past and future doctoral students in theatre history, and of all the colleagues in performance research who have long depended on the collective expertise, as well as the material resources, of the Theatre and Performance department at the V & A, I am writing to join my voice to the chorus of those who have already written to express their alarm about the proposal to downgrade what was not long since a splendid separate branch museum in Covent Garden to a mere annexe of Fashion and Furniture.

The performing arts, by which in the time of Shakespeare this country first attracted the serious respect of intellectual Europe, and in which Britain, if in nothing else, still outshines the rest of the world, have long enjoyed at the V&A not only a superb, growing archive closely linked with the living world of performance but a fine team of curators and interpreters. The traces of performance are not merely material things susceptible of purely material classification, but require specialist intermedial knowledge which only develops and flourishes in such teams. I have myself used the V&A’s resources throughout my career as a scholar of theatrical history and practice and have been horrified to learn of this proposal to break up and diminish such a significant, world-famous and unique national cultural asset.

I hope that whatever direction the reform of the V&A may take, it will leave this priceless resource, which has evolved and grown over so many years of careful nurture and investment, intact.
Michael Dobson, Director of The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Birmingham

I am personally writing as Director of the Centre for Dance Research at Coventry University. We have had a long association with the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Department, collaborating on several projects and joining with the highly knowledgeable and experienced curators for a variety of research activities. For example, we are currently supporting an AHRC-funded PhD candidate who is researching the Chisenhale Dance Space archive, which developed from extended conversations with V&A colleagues. Many of my team have benefited from visiting the Department for their own research over many years. It is hard to put a value on the importance of the collection and the need for its expert curation for the future safeguarding of Performing Arts.
Professor Sarah Whatley, Coventry University

I am a dance writer/historian based in Los Angeles in the far stages of writing a biography of the choreographer Jack Cole, a much overlooked, greatly influential dance artist whose four oversized show-business scrapbooks are in the excellent care of the V & A Theatre & Performance Department.

I had been aware of the existence of this material for many years before one fine day, in the spring of 2019 (miraculously prior to the debacle of 2020), I bought a flight ticket, booked an Air B&B and made the journey to Jack Cole Mecca – otherwise known as Blythe House – for a glorious week of researching Cole’s spectacular scrapbooks: spread on a spacious clean white table, with wonderful natural light, and under the excellent attention of the curatorial staff there.

This material has formed the basis of my book. I refer to it daily. I urge you … please do not change the circumstances I describe above, so that other scholars from all over the world may take advantage of them as well. One of the things that gave me comfort over years was the idea that Cole’s materials were in excellent hands at the V&A.
Debra Levine, dance historian, Los Angeles

The V&A has a strong reputation as an internationally leading exponent of theatre and performance curation and, for a brief period the Performing Arts were even designated as a branch museum as with the Museum of Childhood. Now they do not even warrant a separate department, despite covering all material types and relying on specialist curators, archivists and librarians working together.
Naomi Barber, Head of Academic Studies, Urdang Academy

As the person responsible for depositing the archive of Radius (The Religious Drama Society of Great Britain, founded 1929) with the Theatre and Performance department at the V&A, I am writing to express our Society’s serious concern at the closure and proposed reorganisation of these collections. Radius made the donation of this material with full confidence in the V&A’s international reputation as a resource for theatre historians and in its commitment to making the deposited material available for research. We have directed a number of theatre researchers and PhD students to the V&A collections and I myself have published articles based on research in this archive.

As we understand the proposal, there is no current commitment either to maintaining the collection as a discrete entity or to retaining staff with the specialist knowledge that has been so valuable to researchers in the past. The announcement took our organisation by surprise and I am told that the level of consultation has been minimal.

Radius hopes that the V&A will review its plans and reformulate them after a process of consultation with stakeholders and theatre historians. Anything less would be a repudiation of the trust placed in the institution by its countless donors.
Dr Margaret Hunt, Honorary archivist, Radius

We ask you and the Trustees to reconsider your decision to close the Theatre & Performance department and merge it with Furniture, Textiles and Fashion. To do so overlooks the multi-faceted nature of the collections and the leading role the department plays internationally in developing best practice in archiving, curating and interpreting the intangible cultural heritage of the performing arts.
Professor Mark Evans, Coventry University

 

And finally, two threads on Twitter highlighting the unique characteristics of theatre and performing arts heritage:

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Happy Birthday William : An update and selection of comments from donors & supporters (23 April)

Today, 23 April, is celebrated worldwide as the birthday of William Shakespeare. The cultural legacy of the “Bard of Avon” […]