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Letters: What are the decorative arts?

A criticism of the phrase

While agreeing with nearly everything you have to say (The Art Newspaper, No.107, October 2000, p.1) about the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), I feel that your choice of the phrase “decorative arts” to characterise the museum and its collections shed significant light on the multitude of problems facing that troubled institution.

It is not merely that the phrase fails to cover vast areas of the museum’s sometimes confused and anomalous holdings. Much more importantly, the words “decorative arts” are virtually (and I would suggest sometimes wilfully) meaningless to the vast majority of the V&A’s potential visitors, and nearly all of them under the age of 40. They are even less likely to say, “Let’s go and look at the decorative arts” than they are, as you amusingly suggest, to say, “Let’s go and look at the computer didactics”.

Implicit in the continuing use of “decorative arts”, I suspect, is the mistaken belief that things could be put right, and audiences would recover, if only curators were allowed to mount traditional exhibitions in their traditional areas of expertise. This may be true in the case of Art Deco, William Morris or contemporary fashion, but recent experience suggests that it is unlikely to work for earlier centuries. Furthermore, even during the recent and successful Art Nouveau show the permanent galleries remained as thinly populated as ever.

The vacuous Spiral is certainly not the answer to this dilemma, but nor is a misty-eyed appeal to the curatorial practices of yesteryear. How to sharpen the V&A’s focus, how to regain and build on the goodwill and interest of a wider public beyond its loyal core of fans without abandoning the riches in its care—these will be the immense tasks facing any future director of the Old Lady of South Kensington.

Joe Earle

Keeper, Far Eastern Department

Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982-87

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘What are the decorative arts?'