If you don’t want a robot to steal your job, you need the arts!

As the RAD celebrates its centenary with a major display at the V&A, the museum’s director Tristram Hunt discusses the importance of arts education.

Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt. Photo: V&A.

We all have a role to play in arts education. It is important not to think that schools have all the answers. There’s a widespread ecology of education around art – schools play a powerful and significant part, and we can all be concerned about the curriculum, but they’re not the whole story.

Growing up, I was blessed with a rich and stimulating environment. My grandfather is an artist – he worked in prints and oil. He worked and taught in South Africa for some time, and I remember seeing him in his studio in Chelsea. My mother was a landscape architect, so was always doing drawings. I grew up in Cambridge and remember school trips to the wonderful gallery at Kettles Yard.

I did physical theatre workshops which were really fun, but I didn’t do any dance.

In the UK, we’ve seen a 35% drop in the number of arts subjects taken at GCSE since 2010. It’s a negative cycle – fewer schools offer the subjects, so they train fewer teachers, who reach fewer students. The new Ofsted inspection criterion will judge a school on whether it has a broad and balanced curriculum, which is very important.

How do I justify arts education? If you don’t want a robot to steal your job, you need the arts! To give resilience in the modern workplace, you need creativity. The arts bring joy, but this is also instrumental.

Learning through play is vital. We have had a long and engaged connection to design education at the V&A. We’re also transforming the Museum of Childhood into a world-leading museum of design and creativity for children, families and young people.

There is no admission charge at the V&A, but of course it isn’t free to get here – the cost of travel into London can be quite punishing for a family. What we can do is support really strong programmes in and out of the museum, so that they are able to enjoy everything there.

Wooden sculpture of tiger attaching soldier.

Tipu’s Tiger. Photo: V&A.

If I was introducing a child to the museum the first thing I’d show them is Tipu’s Tiger – the automaton that mauls a soldier! Then I’d whisk them to the jewellery gallery to see our stunning sparkles (including a tiara that Prince Albert designed for Queen Victoria). We’d go to the ceramics gallery to see our remarkable ceramic pagodas, and end in the Rapid Response collection of current objects.

The history of the V&A seems to me to be a story of Britain. It is a national story (beginning with the Great Exhibition of 1851); a continental story (Prince Albert brought his interest in German and European arts); and an international story (the V&A’s South Asian collection has its origins in the India Museum, founded by the East India Company in 1799). My background is in 19th-century history and civic culture, so I’ve always been concerned with notions of British identity and culture.

The V&A should be a living, breathing place, not a cemetery. We have a superb performance festival every spring, and very dynamic leadership within the performance department.

Why are we hosting a display about the RAD? It’s important that we connect to other partners with a generosity of spirit. We are a museum of art, design and performance – that’s important to us.

Reproduced from Dance Gazette, Issue 3 2019.