BY Tim Smith-Laing in Interviews | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

A Certain Responsibility

Curator and author Paul Williamson talks about his long and distinguished career at London's Victoria and Albert Museum

BY Tim Smith-Laing in Interviews | 08 SEP 16

Paul Williamson has long been at the centre of the British museum world. Nearly four decades spent at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum have seen him assume roles ranging from volunteer to Director of Collections and Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass; although he has recently retired, he remains at the V&A as Keeper Emeritus and Honorary Senior Research Fellow. A world expert on Medieval sculpture and a widely published author, he is also a curator with an unparalleled knowledge of the ins and outs of the modern museum. I met with him in a book-lined backroom at the V&A to discuss his career, curating, the current state of British museums and some of his favourite pieces in the V&A’s collection.

Tim Smith-Laing  Paul, you’ve just retired after 37 years working at the V&A. Can you tell me a little about how you came to the museum?

Paul Williamson  I was doing post-graduate research at the time. I’d received a grant that put me in a position to do some voluntary work beyond my PhD and decide whether I wanted to commit to working in a museum or to follow the teaching route. I wrote to John Beckwith, the very eminent Medievalist who was then Keeper of Architecture and Sculpture at the V&A and, to cut a long story short, I got a bit of experience and realized that working in a museum was something that I very much wanted to do.

I didn’t know that Beckwith was about to retire, so I was rather taken aback when he started talking in terms of me taking over from him — not as Keeper, obviously, but with responsibility for the Medieval sculpture collections. Nonetheless, I threw my hat into the ring with the other applicants and was immensely fortunate to get the job; I became Junior Assistant Keeper. It was my first step on the curatorial ladder, back in 1979.

T S-L  And you’ve been at the V&A ever since. Why did you stay? 

PW  If you’re interested in Medieval or Renaissance sculpture, or sculpture generally, there’s no better place in Britain to study it — no better place in the world, really.

The St Nicholas Crozier, c.1150-70, carved elephant ivory, 12 x 10 x 3 cm. Courtesy: © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

T S-L  Why is that?

PW  Well, from about 300 up to 1916, the collection is just astonishingly comprehensive and high-quality. We had a head start on everyone else: Britain was so prosperous in the 19th century that we were in a very good position to snap up the huge amount of material coming out of the unification of Italy and the secularization of religious foundations. By about 1890, we were already so far ahead of competitors like the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that they have been playing catch up ever since.

But there are all sorts of other reasons why one would want to stay here. The job itself changes so much from year to year: gallery refurbishment, temporary exhibitions, both here and elsewhere. Then there are the≈different management and administrative challenges that come up as a result of being promoted within an organization. These are sometimes pretty demanding in an unpleasant way, but I’ve found them very stimulating, too. I think it’s important that you take the chance to play a part in the senior management of an institution. You certainly can’t complain that it’s not being done properly if you haven’t put yourself forward! And I felt a certain responsibility to do my fair bit. So, I’ve had a number of different jobs within the V&A, and that’s been tremendously interesting.

T S-L  How have you seen museums evolve over the past four decades or so?

PW  One of the things that has changed is the recognition that we need always to question how we present our collections. Amongst my senior colleagues in the late 1970s, it was expected that curators were the masters and knew exactly how to present to the public. And if the public didn’t get it, well, tough. Some of the wall labels written at the time were splendidly mandarin! Now, there is much more of a feeling that we’re sharing our knowledge with the public in a way that is accessible to everybody.

T S-L  Does that mean museums have become more important from an educational point of view?

PW  They are certainly used more. You only have to look at visitor numbers, which have increased enormously in the last 20 years. That’s partly to do with tourists but, nevertheless, one only has to go out into the galleries to see the range of audiences. There’s never been a time when the V&A has been more popular.

T S-L  Does this mean that museums are financially healthy, too?

PW  Well, there’s a troubling gap now between London and the regional museums. We don’t need to worry too much about the big beasts. Because we’re right at the centre of a huge city, we’re glamorous: companies want to associate themselves with successful exhibitions like our Alexander McQueen show and so on. So, it is relatively easy for us to raise additional funds.

But there are real signs that some of the great museums of my youth — in Birmingham, Newcastle and Sheffield — are suffering. Poor local authorities are being hammered and, obviously, one of the first places they look to make savings is libraries and museums. You get reduced opening hours, reduced staffing levels and that means fewer and fewer people have the time to develop their expertise. Ultimately, that’s bad for the nationals as well, because those museums have been a traditional route into them.

T S-L  That makes it sound like participation in museums is simultaneously widening and narrowing: getting broader in terms of social reach but more centralized geographically. Is that reflected in the academic side of things now, in training art historians for museum roles?

PW  In terms of training the curators of the future — which is something I’m very interested in — I think things are looking healthy. There have been times when there was a real polarity between the way curators looked at works of art and the way university scholars looked at them. Certain academics were fairly scornful about the sort of research being done in galleries and museums, especially with the dawn of the new art history in the 1980s. At some points, it was a pretty awkward relationship. But the pendulum swings. Good curators have always been interested in the materiality of things; there was a dawning recognition amongst colleagues in universities that they needed to engage with this as well as with the wider issues that overlap with literature and history.

‘I want to get people engaged with the objects on a visceral level. I think what comes first – even for specialists – is the visual impact.’ Paul Williamson

So, there have been more and more applications for us to enter into collaborative research, funded by the UK government or Europe or elsewhere. The powers that be are extremely interested in interdisciplinarity and impact. And an exhibition, especially in London, provides impact. I think there is much more overlap and working together now than there has been in the past. The V&A was at the forefront of this because we were the first British museum to support a research department — launched in about 1990 — precisely to bring in people who weren’t necessarily curators. This allowed colleagues to step away from their day-to-day work and concentrate on a publication or an exhibition or a new gallery. I think it’s had a tremendously beneficial effect.

T S-L  Are there changes in curation as a result of that?

PW  It seems that ‘curationism’ is very much part of the zeitgeist. I think it’s partly semantic. If somebody says: ‘I curated this exhibition,’ but it’s a one-person show of 30 pictures or so, to my mind that’s partial curation. Full curation is looking after a collection: displaying it, creating a structure in which to present those objects; but also all the nitty-gritty unglamorous stuff like keeping an inventory and making sure that it’s passed down to the next generation in the same or better condition than it was when you started. It’s about keeping, and the curator’s job obviously is to present the material — but that’s only part of it. Adding to the collection is vital as well.

T S-L  You’ve done a certain amount of that in your time at the V&A.

PW  To be able to add to the national collection in that way is a great privilege. Fifty or 100 years from now, our collection, all being well, will be expanded further, but there will still be objects that I added to it, making my own small contribution, in a sense.

T S-L  Such as?

PW  One piece I acquired is a rather astonishing sculpture by Agostino Carlini, which has a wonderful story behind it. Carlini was an Italian émigré who came to England in the middle of the 18th century and became one of the founder members of the Royal Academy. He befriended this fellow called Joshua Ward, a quack doctor who created elixirs and tablets and became very wealthy as a result. Ward hoped that he would have a monument at Westminster Abbey, which is why he commissioned Carlini to make this sculpture.

The artist really captures the swagger of the man — his buttons pulling at his waistcoat, his portliness, this wonderful Bernini-esque lace on his sleeves and the veins on his hands. You can see that he was a man who liked his claret and his beef, with his great jowls. And there he is, obviously making some sort of philanthropic gesture. Carlini captures both Ward’s pomposity and his aspirations with an extraordinarily sophisticated understanding of the marble.

In the end, the monument was never erected and Ward’s son gave the piece to the Royal Society of Arts, where it stayed until 1991, when they wished to sell it, and we were in a position to acquire it quickly. We had quite a decent sum of money in a bequest, so we didn’t have to fundraise in the way we’ve done for so many important objects — like Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces (1814–17) or Benedetto da Rovezzano’s Wolsey Angels (1524–29) — which takes ages and is a necessary part of the job. But it’s very nice when you can just buy something because it turns up at the right time.

T S-L  Do you think museums should be more dynamic or agile in regard to acquisitions?

PW  I think it’s a balancing act. I have a problem with strategies that mean we have to change radically the permanent displays. When we construct new permanent galleries, the expectation is that they might last anything between ten and 25 years; they have to be designed with sufficient flexibility to incorporate new acquisitions or to allow for lending. But, at the same time, we have what we have and we tell the story that we can. Every generation tells a different story with the same objects.

T S-L  What about all the objects stored away out of sight?

PW  One of the ways we’ve dealt with that in the last ten years is through the digitization of the collections. Although what you’re seeing in the permanent displays is the tip of iceberg, you can now access information on over a million objects at the V&A through the website.

T S-L  That opening up of access is built into the history of the V&A, isn’t it? I think of the Cast Courts as a kind of precursor to digitization. Gathering these full-size facsimiles of sculptures from allover Europe in one place is the same kind of democratic move as putting everything online.

PW  That’s what the Cast Courts are all about. Allowing people to see objects in three dimensions when they couldn’t possibly afford to travel to all these different places to see them. And the sheer density was a tremendous idea: it’s still something people both enjoy and are staggered by.

Agostino Carlini, Joshua Ward, c.1761-64, carved marble, 2.1 m. Courtesy: VIEW Pictures/Alamy; photograph: Peter Cook

T S-L  Hopefully, the internet will be able evoke the same reactions one day! To move onto your specialisms, which period interests you in particular?

PW  Originally, I was responsible for the Early Medieval collections — from Early Christian to the Romanesque, which is about 300–1200. But I had a sort of shift later, brought about by work on catalogues and exhibitions, and came to the Gothic, which goes from around 1200–1500.

T S-L  That’s a huge period, which in certain ways still has quite a bad press — it’s still the Dark Ages in the popular imagination. Is that something you’ve come up against?

PW  When we were thinking about the exhibition, ‘Gothic: Art for England 1400–1547’, which we put on in 2003–04, and when we were planning the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, we held a number of public workshops. Most people who were uninformed said: ‘Oh, it was dark; it rained all the time; there was a lot of mud.’ Or [they quoted] Pulp Fiction: ‘I’m going to get Medieval on your ass.’ All these sorts of negative connotations do need correcting.

Even specialists are sometimes surprisingly ignorant about what came before their own period. I see it as the duty of people working in any period to spend their time proselytising — that’s what I’m paid to do. One of the reasons for doing the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries was to make sure that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were still conspicuous. Getting people to engage with the objects on a visceral level and then hoping that will have them hooked, because something is beautiful or funny, or what have you. I think what comes first — even for specialists — is the visual impact, don’t you agree?

T S-L  Absolutely. Often, it’s just a sense of how strange objects can seem — especially Medieval objects. One of the things you’ve worked on, the St Nicholas Crozier, an amazing piece of 12th-century ivory carving, seems a good example of that.

PW  It’s absolutely a virtuoso work: a perfect illustration of how a brilliant craftsman can maximize a potentially awkward space. It tells the whole story of St Nicholas, right round, with the figures clinging to the outside. On its shaft, there’s a baby being born: St Nicholas. He’s juxtaposed with Christ as saviour. Then, above, he’s sitting on the lap of his mother, and he’s pushing her breast away. He wouldn’t drink milk on a Friday — a fast day — so they knew they were dealing with a holy baby at that point.

But what’s wonderful, in my opinion, is the baby’s father, emerging out of the ivory. It’s surreal: he’s actually coming out of the body of the crozier. It’s almost flesh-like: he’s pushing aside the ivory surface.

T S-L  It’s utterly strange.

PW  And it works. Then, on top, you have one of St Nicholas’s miracles while, on the other side, is a juxtaposition of scenes from Christ’s life. When you consider this was made in about 1160, apart from the small scale, which must have been incredibly difficult to work on, it’s an amazing use of such an unpromising space! To create a narrative which can be read in that way is absolutely astonishing. But, of course, this would have been held by the bishop or an abbot. Most people wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on. Certainly, they wouldn’t have been able to look at it for as long as we have.

Tim Smith-Laing is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is writing a novel based on the life of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and a biography of Lady Luck @TimSmith_Laing