Burying the past in glass coffins: Victoria & Albert museum bans sketching in temporary exhibitions

London's Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the world's great museums devoted to material culture and design, has joined a long line of museums who've allowed the owners of loaned items for temporary exhibitions to require them to ban photography and sketching of these items.

There are plenty of museums that have done this already: the London's National Portrait Gallery banned photos in an exhibition celebrating remixes of Andy Warhol, proving that people who buy works that exist because of fair use are perfectly capable of denying that same fair use right to future generations of artists. Around the same time, the Greenwich Museum had banned photos of loaned antique clocks and scientific instruments (because their owners loved the idea of celebrating humanity's ability to record its world, but only in the very distant past). LACMA once mounted an exhibition of Magritte remixes, where, literally, bowler-hatted guards would shout at you if you took a phone or camera out of your pocket (again, fair use was great when it was being used to create these works, but now that they exist, why would we want any more of that sort of thing to go on?).

There are two models for museums: either those display cases are the archives that we will use to reboot our civilisation, or they are the glass coffins in which we will bury it. By allowing the owners of the works in its temporary exhibition, the V&A has cast its lot with glass coffins.

The ban on sketching and photography at the V&A dates back to its David Bowie celebration — unsurprising, as these high-stakes, marketing-driven exhibitions generally flush out the greedy and grasping, and give the museum's most venal and mercenary factions the whip hand. Also unsurprising is that the policy wasn't a one-off for the Thin White Duke, but hung around like a bad smell, wafting over all the exhibitions that followed.

Curators will tell you that they only way they can borrow these works is to accede to the demands of their owners. This is absolutely true. The question isn't whether owners have the right to dictate terms: it's which terms museums accept. If the owner of a Warhol remix demanded the exclusion of women, or black people, or Jews, or registered Democrats, or Corbyn supporters, the museum would turn them down flat. If the owner demanded that people only be allowed to look at the exhibit out of their left eyes, or standing on their right legs, the museum would simply mount the show without that owner's property in it.

The mission of museums is to spread and preserve knowledge (these are related: you preserve knowledge by spreading it). Institutions like the V&A are dependent on public goodwill to stay afloat, since without public spending, they wouldn't be viable. The more the V&A lets greedy fools decide what a museum is for, the harder it will be for the V&A to flush out public support when the next inevitable round of cuts is proposed and it is fighting for its life. The V&A can't survive as the mere home of blockbuster displays of rock memorabilia and underwear; unless it is also a standards-bearer for the ethos of museums themselves, it has no future. After all, the rich people who own the works in question would be just as happy to acquire the rest of the V&A's collection for their own glass cases.

Allowing students to stand in front of exhibits for hours on end, as they lovingly craft an image of that 1950s Playtex rubber girdle in their sketchbooks, just doesn't allow the conveyor belt of visitors to flow fast enough. So what next? A ban on wheelchairs and prams because they take up too much space too?

Having seen the snaking queues that grew outside the museum from 6am every morning for the Bowie show, it's easy to see why the V&A wants to speed up the flow. But a rule banning sketching goes entirely against everything the institution has ever stood for.

The studious reproduction of museum exhibits has long been a fundamental part of art education – a means of honing drawing skills and offering deeper ways of looking. A visit to the sprawling Victorian repository isn't complete without clattering into a skinny-jeaned art student poring over their sketchbook, trying to render the muscular sinews of the Borghese Gladiator or capture the intricacies of a baroque fireplace. It is what the V&A has always been about.

There is even a section on the museum's website extolling the virtues of sketching, summoning the wise words of Le Corbusier. "Drawing in a sketchbook," he wrote, "teaches first to look, and then to observe and finally perhaps to discover … and it is then that inspiration might come."

'No sketching': V&A signs betray everything the museum stands for
[Oliver Wainwright/The Guardian]

(Image: Oliver Wainwright)