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Driving visitor numbers while tackling climate change at the V&A

Above: Future Cities Forum's 'Cultural Cities' discussion in the V&A Museum's board room, Cromwell Road, with Dr Pip Simpson, Director of Design, Estate and Public Programme speaking - second from right.

Seated - from left - Stephen Smith, Partner, Wright & Wright Architects, Charlotte Geeves, CEO, Bristol Old Vic, Stuart Cade, Director, MICA Architects, Michelle Ballentyne, Head of Ballet Futures, English National Ballet, Paul Atkin, CEO, Teatro San Cassiano, Kirsten Lees, Managing Partner, Grimshaw, Amanda Saunders, Development Director, Royal Opera House, Lloyd Lee, Managing Partner, Yoo Capital, Bruce Calton, Director, Scott Brownrigg, Fred Pilbrow, Founding Partner, Pilbrow & Partners, Craig Hassall, CEO, Royal Albert Hall, Dr Pip Simpson of the V&A, and Heather Fearfield, Co-founder, Future Cities Forum.

Future Cities Forum's September 2022 'Cultural Cities' forum was hosted by the V&A Museum in the historic boardroom on the South Kensington campus.

Built on the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851 - which in today's money equates to £18 million and which was also used to build the Science Museum and Royal Albert Hall - the V&A has now expanded to other sites in London and Scotland. The museum is re-designing Young V&A in Bethnal Green, London, ready for a re-opening in summer 2023 and is creating a new museum and archive store in Stratford, part of a new cultural district for the capital.

There were questions to be asked at the event around how museums and performance venues can drive up visitor numbers post pandemic, how they renovate and re-design to attract tourists, which exhibitions will be commercial to bring in much-needed funds, and how they tackle climate change while making their buildings sustainable?

The forum opened with Dr Pip Simpson, Director of Design, Estate and Public Programme, at the V&A, talking about how funding is spent within the museum group, concerning the above challenges:

'The decision-making process is difficult and constantly shifting. We look at the founding principles to guide us so we have an ambition to look both backwards and forwards, so objects from history can inspire the creativity of the future. Creative thinking is at the heart of everything and how to solve the problems of the world.

'The V&A has always seen itself as a social space, right from the beginning with gas lights for evening visits and cafes - it is a mini city. The design process is about 'user-centred-designing' and creating communal spaces where interactions between people can take place democratically. This is important particularly post pandemic where people want to be together and visit museums together.

'The cafes are part of our commercial support in creating the whole day out but equally we want spaces over in Stratford where people can bring their own food.

'Sometimes funding comes from people who have a particular interest in an area or collection and want to give money to that, but we are constantly finding out through research what audiences want to see. We also want to retain an element of surprise, so people can stumble over an object and find new interest in that.

'With interactions and activities, it has been critical in the East of London and at the Young V&A to have the dialogue. There are questions about what needs to be retained and what needs to be new. We have run lots of workshops for children in the area, for instance model making, because they are our advocates going forward. Do we want more digital inter-activity? Sometimes a museum is a place people go to escape the digital world.

'How sustainable we are is also important and we have a masterplan for that. Two years ago, we created the post of Head of Sustainability. One thing we have done is install LED lights and we are up to 80% lighting of that type, and it has had a huge impact. Our roof leaks and so we are repairing that and creating capacity to use rainwater run-off. We sit on a neighbourhood sustainability group - which includes the Royal Albert Hall - and one of the most important things we can do is electrify our energy support because we share heating with the National History Museum.'

Future Cities Forum is extremely grateful to the V&A for hosting our 'Cultural Cities' event and will be publishing a report shortly with contributions from other guests at the discussion.

Below: lunch time in the John Madejski Garden at the V&A, South Kensington (May 2022)


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