Cultural Cities debate report with the V&A East



V&A East Collections and Research Centre at HereEast, Stratford: internal render showing how marquetry ceiling from the now destroyed Altamira Palace near Toledo Spain will included as part of the architecture of the Collections Centre (Copyright Diller Scofidio + Renfro 2018)


Future Cities Forum held its first 'Cultural Cities' debate for 2021 looking at the two issues of how to provide sustainable cultural districts and how to make these relevant to communities with the societal changes that have occurred due to the pandemic.


Speakers included Director of the V&A East, Gus Casley-Hayford, Jonathan Reekie, Director of the Somerset House Trust, Fred Pilbrow, Senior Founding Partner of Pilbrow & Partners, Lloyd Lee, Managing Partner of Yoo Capital and Duncan Wilson Chief Executive of Historic England.


The V&A Museum is creating a new concept of museum and a separate archives and collections centre at Stratford, East London, in a cultural district which encompasses the BBC, the London College of Fashion, Sadler's Wells Theatre and The Bartlett among other institutions.


Gus Casely-Hayford is a renowned museum director, historian, writer and broadcaster and was our lead speaker at our Future Cities Forum event. Gus has moved from his director role at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, to lead the creative strategy and programming across V&A East's two new public venues - a five-storey museum on Stratford Waterfront and a dynamic collections and research centre at Here East - both now under construction in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Both sites will open in 2023 as part of East Bank, a new powerhouse of culture, education, innovation and growth. Gus leads the V&A East curatorial and project teams, working with Chief Curator Catherine Ince and V&A East Project Director Claire McKeown.


His appointment back in Spring 2020, marked a significant milestone in the V&A's expansion beyond South Kensington, with plans for a major transformation of the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green well underway, and the opening of new galleries in Dundee and Shenzhen. Gus is a Fellow of the Cultural Institute at King's College London, Honorary Fellow of SOAS, and a Clore Fellow. He has also sat on the broads of many arts institutions, including the National Trust, the Caine Prize for African Writing and London's National Portrait Gallery. Gus has advised organisations from Tate to the Royal Shakespeare Company and consulted on numerous exhibitions and creative projects and has presenter credits on BBC, Sky Arts and Channel Four.


Gus began our discussion with describing what the new museum would look like:


'With a newly designed space which is vast - the scale of a football field - we will have a glorious new museum when built: There will be multiple floors where visitors can stand to look up and look out and 26,000 objects to explore. Those who are interested can look at best practice from designers around the world. There will be a newly designed state of the art exhibition space where the narratives from our creative communities can find space and present the reactions to the objects from the local community.


'We will draw in marginalised audiences and provide a digital interface which will bring the collections to life. Visitors will be able to record their impressions and leave something of themselves behind. We will create another layer of integration of objects - a space within itself - to seek out and explore the latest debates around the objects.


'There will be facilities for courses and for training. We have set up a connection with The Bartlett / UCL and The London College of Fashion for training and people will be able use this wider partnership to further their own professional opportunities, creating a new community of artists and by so doing, bring back into our own collections.'


Will local communities be receptive to the V&A East offer? London Borough of Tower Hamlets Arts Officer, Kazi Ruksana Begum joined the conversation saying that communities can put up barriers to museums and the V&A East will need to work with them in an outreach programme, explaining why it is relevant to people and bearing in mind that people want to monetise their art, so help them achieve that.


In contrast to the new district that is being created in Stratford East, there has been concern that the pandemic, which has kept creatives, businesses and visitors away from central London in vast numbers, will continue to put off those groups of people returning to play a vibrant part in The Strand/Aldwych district. Westminster City Council is pouring funds into traffic calming measures and arts events to draw people back.


Jonathan Reekie, Director of the Somerset House Trust and involved in the new campaign around The Strand/Aldwych described how a different concept for the area is laying the foundations for a thriving district:


'We have thirty thousand students in situ through King's College London and other institutions and at Somerset House we have worked hard at bringing artists into the building and that has helped to stop artists leaving London. The campaign revolves around a pedestrianised scheme which is a subtle intervention but it can provide more cultural activity.


' The cultural plan is embryonic and a Westminster City Council project, and the green light for it this January took everyone by surprise, but it will help the area to become a global centre of learning. It isn't a case of just parachuting in cultural activity, like a west end theatre. We have to provide space for creative thinking, and R&D space for cultural activity. A lot of culture is made for the public realm but not made in public realm, but we want to change that and this is now how the future of cities might be.'


How to stop museums being over-forbidding and how to beckon in the community was a challenge that Fred Pilbrow, founder of the architectural practice, Pilbrow and Partners talked about at the event. The practice has worked on two important cultural projects recently, the historic EMD Granada cinema at Walthamstow and the proposed new London Fire Brigade museum for the 8 Albert Embankment development opposite the Houses of Parliament. Fred said:


'I guess there are two concepts here, building a cultural attraction from top down where there is the historic infrastructure in place and in contrast where there is none. The historic cinema in Walthamstow where Hitchcock used to watch movies has taken careful restoration but where the local community has taken to the idea of it as a new comedy venue to go to and that has also been backed by the council who can see the value of it to its creative destination plans.


'Whereas the new fire brigade museum although in an area supported by other attractions such as The Garden Museum and the Newport Gallery is a more recently created cultural district. We created a pop-up space where the local community could understand what the new fire brigade museum was all about. The design for the permanent museum includes a glass wall between the fire station and the new museum to break down the thresholds between the buildings. Public realm has been so important and placing a museum in a new mixed-used regeneration scheme has been important.'


'Museums should not be forbidding, you have to soften the building interfaces, consider how to display the objects and get the neighbouring community in. The fire brigade museum has an educational factor - a fire safety message for school kids, it's all about breaking down the institutional barriers and blurring the boundaries with lots of community interaction.'


In West Kensington, the 'people's palace' of Olympia has been at the centre of a major renovation to create better access to the exhibition halls, new restaurants and bars, a cinema and performance spaces with inviting public realm for the community and careful planning to create a cultural attraction supported by hotels for visitors.


The Managing Partner of Yoo Capital, Lloyd Lee described the inspiration for the project and the work that has taken place to revitalise this important cultural area of London:


' In 1886 they built an exhibition centre in West Kensington, on the Queen's vineyards, created for the agricultural sector as a showcase and extended to include live events including P. T. Barnum in 1903 and Buffalo Bill and flooded to create Venice.

The idea was that if you come to Olympia you are here to showcase what you do. We now have healthcare companies, we have musical artists and entertainment companies. In the modern era, the exhibitions industry concept, like the museums sector, needs to evolve. How do we take that step forward? We thought that Olympia could evolve in a different way so that you would not have to buy a ticket to come in.


'We realised that people have so many options when it comes to entertainment. Olympia needed to take the next step. What we can do is to create the showcase to allow people to perform. The student at the performing arts school or the seasoned performer in the industry with a collection of hit recordings, or the performers in-between? In fact, it is all of these in a community. You need to go and out find the best people to join in the collaboration. You cannot take £1.4 billion of investment and and bet all on Black 21.


'You need to make that promise to all your stake-holders from government through local authorities and hotel owners to community groups that when Olympia opens in 2024 that it has the right mix of elements to still be around in 20 and 30 years' time. We have gone for some big names in hospitality and live entertainment, but we have made a commitment to the performing arts school, the jazz club, the not for profit community group and community theatre that they have a permanent place at Olympia. The reason for this is that it creates a collective - a real community., because that is what people will want to come and see - and we have worked hard to combine these, both independents and big names.


'One of the things we have been saying loudly is that we have always believed the best places are the ones open to everyone. Over the past 130 years Olympia was only open to those with a ticket, and even then only open for half of the year because of the time taken to build and dismantle a show. We recognised that Olympia was not benefiting wider communities enough. It needed to be open all year round and it needed to be open to those without a ticket. That's where the idea of the public realm came from.


'The old-fashioned metric says building public realm is a money loser, but we have argued that the best places are open to all and these have longevity. Our investors have supported us in the idea that creating flexible spaces with beautiful public realm helps to attract all sorts of people. It is a risk but these sorts of places create a sense of community. It's important not to hang your hat on one demographic so you can adapt and shift during recessions. We believe both the investment returns and the societal returns will be supported by this strategy.,


Historic England is highlighting the importance of place during the Covid-19 pandemic since local places have become more important to people as they are restricted as to where they can go. Duncan Wilson , Chief Executive, Historic England explained in more detail at our forum event:


'Place-making is really important. The C-virus has made people look more carefully around them. Cultural heritage is maybe a more passive part but part of the same picture.in terms of people understanding their future and being creative in the process. Creatives are attracted to historic environments - it's part of the tension and the dynamic that stimulates creativity. In the north, mills used for spinning are being re-purposed as centres for the computer games and social media industries. Stratford in East London has an amazing history, not to say that there are not other ways of place-making currently and in the future.


'Somerset House is a really good example where a new cultural experience has been born in an older place. In working with developers there has to be a constructive way forward. There are gains that developers can bring, we don't always agree but in planning terms, together we can create better places. With the developer Argent at Kings Cross, the new and old character of the past is preserved for the future. Our conversations were difficult at the start, but both sides saw that giving way created a compromise and a better scheme. It was catalytic. High streets are a big challenge but I think there is a recognition that plate glass doesn't always work and that we need to re-purpose buildings sensitively. It is glib to talk about the individual stores as ' butcher baker candlestick maker' but that maybe is what people have realised they want.


'Authenticity is at its heart - it has to be - it is where experience really sings and people are attracted. Where there has been attempts to create this within an historical area sometimes hasn't worked. In town centres outside London, we want to work to bring culture to the foreground of people lives. When it works people really appreciate it as with the re-use of mills. Some communities see them as a symbol of the local area but it will take time for all to appreciate it.'


Among our audience for the event was the London College of Fashion's Director of Graduate Futures, Business & Innovation, Linda Roberts who has welcomed the move to east London saying that it was part of the College's history and that in the move they were bringing six sites together into one building, close to the V&A East's main museum on the Stratford waterfront:


'We feel that we are coming home. We have been working on the thinking behind this for five or six years and on the communication around that with our future students. Our 2023 cohort of students has brought a positive conversation along with building up those opportunities for collaboration, we can make more of our resources, so the question is why wouldn't we want to come over to Stratford?'


Will Evans, who works with young people at Newark Youth in Tower Hamlets on events and training and getting young people engaged, commented during our forum that the most effective way of connecting for museums with the community was to help them with careers and qualifications, otherwise they will question what they are getting out of going to a museum.


'We have worked very well with the Old Vic Theatre with young people in workshops and then with follow-up theatre live streams so that people engaged can do it from home. This is real outreach. Could young people aid their learning at a museum and then on the street at events or online?'


Will intimated that because of Covid-19 perhaps there were greater mental health problems and going out to public events may now seem uncomfortable for some, so the dual delivery of outside and online would be important going forward.


Gus concluded our event by saying that what Will had to say reflected the metric of how the V&A at Stratford would measure success. He said it reflected the original V&A story, where the museum was the first to offer gas lighting and a restaurant to London communities so that people could come, enjoy and recreate, This was transformative for the age and so too we want to not be passive as a museum in East London but engage, whether it be through tertiary education or via the national curriculum through physical or the digital, enabling people to access jobs or enjoy the museum through handling the objects. In short, the objects are 'Yours' and in the spirit of our founder Henry Cole, it is there to 'Fulfil your dreams'. Some of the collection is 'contentious and difficult' and we are motivated to live up to the higher ideas of museology but we want to change the way people see our collections, now and in the future'.






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