We are all baffled by the Stoke MP's appointment to the V&A – and that is the only sane response
Let’s not beat about the bush. I find Tristram Hunt’s appointment as director of the V&A hugely, grimly depressing. His complete lack of experience for one of the biggest and most challenging museum jobs in the world may stand as a lamentable thing on its own, but I confess it is also true that I find almost every utterance and position he’s ever taken as a Labour MP to be profoundly depressing, too.
From his vision – let’s call it that, since it’s the closest to one he’s ever had – of ‘John Lewis couples and those who aspire to shop in Waitrose’ being the ‘sort of people’ Labour should attract (I’m sure his Stoke constituency, where he gained a very slim majority in a previously safe Labour seat and which had one of the highest Brexit votes in the country, would appreciate that market demographics sentiment from their hastily departing MP), to crossing a university picket line when shadow education secretary to give a lecture on Marx, to arguing that museum entry fees be reintroduced (for collections for which we already pay), all we find here is grimly comic, unintended irony. And it’s depressing.
But even more depressing are those who find his appointment ‘refreshing’. Those who say how marvellously ‘refreshing’ it is that the V&A’s trustees should have ‘thought outside the box for once’ and appointed someone not immersed in fusty old museum culture (sorry, let’s get this straight: no box has been ruptured – some plummy type with a gentleman’s amateur interest getting a top museum job is really not thinking outside any box; we’re merely returning to the way things have always been done in Britain – hoorah)
And let’s not forget why these supportive voices talk up a comparison with Neil MacGregor, the former British Museum director who exceeded in his role, yet who, as a scholar and editor of that rarified art history journal Burlington Magazine, also had no prior museum experience to speak of. They keep bringing up his name because not only is it the only positive they can think of, it’s the only comparison that would make the appointment of Hunt not sound completely baffling. How easy, in that case, must they find it to forget MacGregor’s essential seriousness next to the bumbling comedy act that is Hunt. (And, really, at least MacGregor’s bona fides as an art historian were in no doubt).
So what exactly are Hunt’s strangely persuasive skills that have convinced his supporters that he might indeed be the next MacGregor? I have no idea. If anyone says it’s diplomacy and ‘being a politician’ which are the skills actually required for his new role and not simply knowing ‘how to put a few exhibits together’, then they’ve overlooked that Hunt doesn’t really have these skills.
Of course, he’s spent the last seven years being a politician, but that doesn’t ‘make you a politician’ in the sense that counts here. Here, after all, is a politician who couldn’t even muster the support of 35 like-minded Labour MPs to get the nomination for the leadership ballot in 2015. So much for gilded youth singing ‘The future belongs to me’. And here is the bumptious billy-arse who tells Cambridge University’s student Labour club that they are the one percent who should be taking control of the party as an act of ‘dissent’. Nor has he exactly got his constituents singing his praises either. He’s an incredibly unpopular MP within his own constituency, only scraping 19 percent of their vote in the last election.
For the sake of the V&A I do not wish Hunt to fail in his new role, and I’m pretty sure he won’t, since it’s not a job that he’ll do unsupported by those with plenty of organisational experience to spare. What is grim, what is actually really grim, is that this is someone who was parachuted into a safe Labour seat by bypassing all the normal routes and rules for selection, and despite the protests of its own CLP, as if he were some heir apparent, and is now parachuted into another surprise ‘top job’. Once again we find that this is how things are done in the U.K. And we’re all expected to find it ‘refreshing.’
My guess is that many senior curators at the V&A feel as baffled as I and everyone else does. Why wouldn’t they be? Their museum has anointed a director who hasn’t so much as curated a show, or indeed handled a budget for an arts organisation, or any organisation, of any size. I think we should hold on to that sense of bafflement, because it’s actually a pretty sane response.
Whatever Hunt’s abilities as a historian and broadcaster, Hunt has shown himself to be something of a bumbling liability as a Labour MP (and no, this isn’t an invitation to dissect the current leadership here; one subject at a time). I hope Stoke-on-Trent Central, with its high unemployment, doesn’t get a replacement who thinks nothing of speaking blithely of the gilded one percent, nor who will tell them that they should aspire to grocery-shopping in Waitrose. As for the V&A, well, I’m sure it will survive. I’m not sure the integrity of the trustees will though.