Same Difference; as Modern Europe Faces an Ongoing Identity Crisis, Museums Have a Vital Role in Reminding Us of Our Shared Cultural Past

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 9, 2015 | Go to article overview

Same Difference; as Modern Europe Faces an Ongoing Identity Crisis, Museums Have a Vital Role in Reminding Us of Our Shared Cultural Past


Byline: Martin Roth Director of the V&A

TODAY the V&A throws open its doors to more than 1,500 square metres of the museum's spacious front wing. Closed since 2009 and last refurbished in 1972, seven rooms have been architecturally transformed and close to 1,100 extraordinary objects including some of the most spectacular in our collection have been installed in a suite of magnificent new galleries.

Europe 1600-1815 tells the story of 215 turbulent years; a period in which Europe started to systematically engage with the wider world, global trade began in earnest and many of the ways of living familiar to the 21st-century Londoner were born: hot drinks, seasonal fashions, comfortable upholstered furniture, salon evenings in the home -- even travelling shaving sets for fashionconscious men -- all started life in 17thand 18th-century Europe.

In just over two centuries of shifting power, we encounter the Thirty Years' War, Louis XIV and the rise of France, Catherine the Great, the Enlightenment, the French revolution, Napoleon and Waterloo -- a swathe of history currently entirely absent from the British national curriculum. Consequently unfamiliar to many, it is vital to explore this period if we are to bring perspective to today's difficult times for Europe; our new galleries could not come at a more important moment.

Every day the debate about whether Britain belongs in Europe continues. Yet nowhere in Europe is there so much Europe as there already is in London. People are moving across continents on a scale not seen since the Second World War. In the face of terrorism and migration, our compassion, ability to act in confidence as Europeans is being deeply and seriously tested. Europe is under stress -- both in terms of the contemporary European economic project, and of our personal and collective cultural identities.

Against this backdrop, is this really a moment in which fine objects, design and the preoccupations and possessions of centuries past can have any relevance? As a museum director, it will surprise no one that I think it is. Furthermore, I believe museums have an obligation to be a model of collaboration, to demonstrate what cultural exchange and understanding achieves and, ultimately, to offer hope. …

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