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Sam Wood In Conversation with Daniel Slater

In the wake of the pandemic and in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement, Sam Wood speaks to Daniel Slater, Head of Exhibitions for the Victoria and Albert Museum about monumentality, diversity and the future of the museum.

SW: With so much unprecedented change at the moment how is the museum coping?

DS: I think if we’re honest at the moment what is on everyone’s minds is making sure museums are a going concern for the future, because at the moment they are on a knife edge as to whether they can ride this through. At the end of the day the first priority has to be making sure that the museum still exists. There is very little chance that the government is going to let organisations such as ours go belly-up, things would have to be way worse than they are now to let some of the most significant cultural organisations in the world shut down, but that is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

SW: Broadly what are divisions at the VnA in terms of collections?

DS: The collection itself is set up by geographic region, but also then by method and materials, so furniture, textiles and fashion will collect from everywhere, but then the Asian department has everything that is Asian, regardless of material or method. There is a complete absence of Asia Pacific, and when I say that I am referring to Australia and the Pacific Islands, also very little from Africa apart from North Africa which basically falls into the middle east because from Morocco to Egypt that’s classed as Islamic culture so there is quite a lot of that and then very little Latin America. It’s very much based on the Eurasian continent.

SW: With regards to museum collections in the UK more broadly, and in the light of Black Lives Matter and the ongoing removal of monuments, could you talk about how things could be re-evaluated with more attention to our post-colonial, post slave trade obligations? What would happen for example if the returning of artefacts like the Elgin Marbles were taken to it’s furthest logical conclusion?

DS: First of all, I am not for returning the Elgin Marbles. There are so many things which are not in their places of origin, that have meaningful pasts and relationships to individuals or places, and there could be any variety of places where things could rightfully sit, but they don’t sit there. At the museum we talk a lot about the cultural objects because they get a lot of attention, and partly that’s because the press like to attack culture because it’s ‘elitist’, but none want to talk about borders that have moved and shifted in war for example. Should we go back to the borders of the nineteenth century, should we go back to the borders of the Franco-Prussian war, should we go back to Charlemagne’s borders, Roman borders? Which of these is the legitimate one? This is the moment we live in, you can’t just say we should go back to what was before, there’s nothing progressive about that.
The Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol for example is no longer there; it was rightfully torn down and can now no longer exist as a celebration of a man who profited greatly from the slave trade. However, I think we need lots of these difficult objects to be able to address lots of really difficult subjects. We can’t just keep the good stuff, the nice stuff, we have to keep the complex painful stuff as well because without that, how can we remind ourselves and others a long time from now about the complex issues we were dealing with? There is a value in those objects even though they have dark histories, but there is a specific difference between if those are used as a public celebration of an individual or if they form part of a curated museum collection.

SW: One public monument I feature regularly in my own work as an articulation of colonial power, and which is very much part of the same generation as the VnA is the Albert memorial, how do you feel about it?

DS: Why would the Albert Memorial be any different from the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol? Perhaps we are able to make ourselves more accepting of the fact that empire is part of our history, as the memorial is not as straightforwardly about slavery as the Colston statue was, I’m not sure. Another issue is that the Colston statue has no further layers of significance architecturally, artistically, as an indicator of what was going on at that time in the way that the Albert memorial does, which if you can separate it from the inherent messaging that is in-built, it becomes a question of what are you willing to part with.

SW: Do you think scale plays a part?

DS: Yes I think it does. If the question was about the mechanics of taking down a structure like that then it would be simpler; for example in Germany after the war there was no trouble dismantling the physical apparatus of the state in short order, but I think the issue of scale also encompasses time; in Germany only a few years had elapsed where stadiums and buildings had come to embody something abhorrent in the nation’s history, where-as time heaps meanings on to buildings like the Albert Memorial and makes them more problematic and varied in their connotations.

SW: Do you now have a responsibility to re-evaluate many collections at the VnA in an unprecedented way?

DS: A Collection should not be something that happens simply as a response to what is happening in a particular moment. The interpretation and meaning of an artefact or work of art is something that constantly changes all the time, because the curators who surround that object exist over a series of generations and their opinion and the way they view that thing also changes based on myriad factors from the era in which they exist. I think however that with BLM there is a real urgent need to be proactively re-interpreting things in that light, rather than just saying it will happen naturally, because it clearly hasn’t happened naturally. There are so many blockades to this progress, for example at the VnA we have just one black curator, Christine Checinska, Curator of African Diaspora Fashion, who started in May of this year, before that we had none. The situation with diversity and curation in museums is appalling and needs to change urgently.