Victoria and Albert and…James? The Smithsonian goes to London

Two years ago, the Mayor of London’s Office approached the Smithsonian to explore our possible interest in participating in the redevelopment of the former Olympic Park in East London as part of a new educational and cultural quarter in the city.

Today, Secretary David Skorton announced that the Smithsonian and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are moving forward on a collaboration that will result in the Institution’s first permanent exhibition space outside of the United States.


Panoramic view of London at sunset with Tower Bridge in the midground

A multi-segment panoramic image of the London skyline from the Bermondsey banks of the Thames. (Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

We’re sure you have some questions about this new collaboration, so we put together this guide to help answer some of them.

Why did the Smithsonian decide to go to London to create a new exhibition space? Why not partner with a museum here in the United States?

We already have a major presence in the U.S. through our museums, our research centers, our affiliate museums and our traveling exhibition services.

London offers the Smithsonian the opportunity to share the best of the Smithsonian in one of the most diverse cities in the world. It has a large visitor base, infrastructure and many potential global collaborations in the arts and culture fields. The Smithsonian is a recognized presence in international research, but less so for programs; London would help with that.

London also gives us a chance to reach people who may not be able to visit the U.S. It represents another step in fulfilling our mission—the increase and diffusion of knowledge—in ways that reflect the ingenuity, scientific and historical achievements, as well as the goodwill of the American people.

Aerial view of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park with site outlined in pink

The new cultural complex will be created on this triangular site (4.5 acres) at Queen Eilizabeth Olympic Park, the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics. The site is in front of the London Aquatics Centre and a few hundred yards from the former Olympic Stadium and ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture and observation tower.
Image by Kevin Allen/London Legacy Development Corp. (LLDC)

Why did we choose to partner with the V&A?

The V&A is one of the world’s great museums. Like the Smithsonian, the V&A is interested in focusing on the intersection of the arts, humanities and sciences. Both museums agree that, as global leaders, we have an obligation to engage people on major issues that affect the world.

Our presence in V&A East will be a collaboration, not just a cohabitation. We think that together, we can create thought-provoking exhibitions and programming that challenge people to think differently about global issues.

What will our presence in V&A East look like?

V&A East will be the anchor of the new cultural complex in East London at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The complex is expected to open in 2021.

We will collaborate with V&A on the inaugural gallery and have the option to develop another gallery, independently or in collaboration with other organizations.

Will Smithsonian collection items be heading to London?

It’s possible, but it’s still too soon to know for sure. Similar to any exhibitions we do—including traveling exhibitions—we will determine if it would be appropriate to include any objects. If it is, we would determine whether the objects are available for loan and can be transported and cared for at Smithsonian standards.

Are the Smithsonian and the V&A the only two cultural organizations in the complex?

We will be join there by Sadler’s Wells, University College London East and the University of the Arts London.

How will this benefit visitors to the Smithsonian here in the U.S.?

This is a bidirectional relationship that would see exhibitions and programming come from the V&A to the U.S., possibly to the Arts & Industries Building. Staff from the two museums will be working together closely, so there are many opportunities for exchanges among museum colleagues as well.

Exterior of V&A with reflecting pool

The venerable Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (Photo of the the John Madejski Garden by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The Smithsonian has so many needs right now—the empty A&I Building and a NASM that’s showing its age. Can we afford this?

A partnership with the V&A is the most responsible way for us to pursue this opportunity. The Smithsonian will contribute to the initial cost of construction and then pay for exhibitions, programming and staff costs. The ongoing operating costs of the facility are the responsibility of the V&A.

No federal monies will be used for this project, and all of the money will be privately raised specifically for this project. The London Legacy Development Corporation and the Foundation for Future London helped us identify donors that were interested in funding a Smithsonian presence in London. We have always raised money for a number of projects at the same time, and we have an outstanding record doing that.

Will you be taking staff from the units to help open this new facility? We’re understaffed as it is and can’t afford to lose anyone right now. On the other hand, I’d love a transfer to London.

Right now there is no definitive plan for staffing (or programming) the space. We envision a staff of fewer than seven people, including a director.

Are the Regents on board with this? Has Congress been briefed?

The Regents have been briefed about the project since we were approached about being part of it, nearly two years ago. In early May, the Board of Regents voted to allow the Secretary to execute a term sheet with the V&A to establish this long-term relationship. The term sheet will serve as the basis for a formalized agreement with the V&A later this year.

Congressional staffs have been briefed about the project, and unit directors have been briefed as well.

This video clip from the London Legacy Development Corp. shows the site on Stratford Waterfront in East London where the new cultural complex will be created. The site is in front of the London Aquatics Centre and a few hundred yards from the former Olympic Stadium and ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture and observation tower.

Who is leading this project for the Smithsonian?

Al Horvath, the Under Secretary for Finance and Administration and Julian Raby, the director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, have been leading the Smithsonian team for this project.

I still have questions.

If you still have questions about something we haven’t addressed, ask us in the comments or email torch@si.edu and we’ll  get the answer for you.

Posted: 13 June 2016
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.