Theatre Museum refuses to die without a struggle

For the past year theatrical, educational and theatre-going people alike have been fighting to retain a West End presence for the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. Wrong venue - right place, appears to be the herald call that has been echoing over these battling months but failing to be heard by the Lottery fund and government. Here is our latest from the group that is endeavouring to STOP THE CLOSURE!

Guardians of the THEATRE MUSEUM

www.theatremuseumguardians.org.uk is now taking names of new Guardians.

Seven Deadly Sins Four Deadly Sinners will be playing for a special Gala Charity performance at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden in aid of the Guardians of the Theatre Museum fund raising on Sunday 25 Feb '07.

Entreaty to the V & A trustees: At The Back

Latest item from the Guardians:

Here’s our latest weekly update. This message goes to those who were at the Guardians’ inaugural meeting, and those who have asked to be kept in touch. Do feel free to forward it within your organisation.

Our continuing task is to make as many people aware as possible of the threat to the museum and organise resistance. The quickest way is to collect supporting voices, through our dedicated website. This is now up and running, after some awful teething troubles with the sign-up form. Guardians are signing up at the rate of a thousand a day – good but still not good enough. Please keep spreading the word. New material is added daily.

New names on the council include Cameron Mackintosh (who has given us space in the programmes for two of his shows), Peter O’Toole, Paul Scofield, Arnold Wesker, and from the dance world Lady Macmillan and Luke Rittner. Supporting bodies added include the Association of British Theatre Technicians, The Society of London Theatre, the Stephen Sondheim Society and the Theatrical Management Association.

Many more people have sent messages of support, a selection of which appears on the website. As important as the ‘big names’ on the first page are the many TM visitors, from home and abroad, whose enthusiasm for the museum speaks loudly from the second page.

I discovered that the TM’s own website has a large selection of supportive messages. There was only one dissenting voice – our own website has also received only one message against the museum.

The V&A’s counter-move was to announce the possibility of a Theatre Museum in Blackpool. We welcomed this as a possible outpost of Russell Street. The story, and our response, meant that we were front page news in The Stage for two weeks in succession, together with a leader in week two.

There has been a disappointingly small reaction from the national press, but we expect to have a TV slot before the end of the week, and professional journals are very supportive. I have written another call to arms for this week’s Theatre Record, which is attached. Some of you may find it useful in persuading new supporters.

Many theatre websites, at home and abroad, carried stories and/or links to the Guardians. Equity’s website has a link, and we hope most of our supporting bodies have been able to do the same by now.

Lord (Brian) Rix’s written questions in the House of Lords are awaiting reply. An early day motion has been put up in the House of Commons.

A serious proposal for a commercial rescue of the Theatre Museum was put to David Lammy; V&A staff were in attendance and their reaction was lukewarm, in spite of a fine interventions from Keith Vaz MP.

Once the bandwagon is rolling we can start to look at more than simply stopping the museum closure. If we can collect 100,000 names on the website by Christmas, this should at least demonstrate to the V&A and DCMS that they ought to think again.

We still haven’t dipped into the £35 ‘fighting fund’ we collected on 22 November.

What YOU can still do – most of this you know already

It’s important for everyone who gets this mailing to help, in however small a way.

ABOVE ALL get your name on the list of Guardians on the website as soon as possible.

THEN tell as many people as you can to do the same. Do you have mailing lists, Christmas card lists, lists of students, lists of professional colleagues, or clients, who can be approached? The website contains all the information you should need to persuade them to join up.

Representatives of organisations – please remind your members about the campaign by whatever available means. Agents – please tell your clients.

Do you know any press or PR people who might be willing to give their services in spreading the word or collecting names? Every one of them ought to be on our side.

Does anyone have access to the mailing lists of individual theatres?

Can we get a version of the advertisement into more theatre programmes?

Can anyone place the attached advert, or print it off as leaflets for distribution?

WE STILL NEED LEADING THEATRE NAMES WHO WOULD BE WILLING TO TAKE PART IN BRIEF INTERVIEWS EITHER FOR TELEVISION OR THE EVENING STANDARD IN THE NEXT WEEK – contact Sue Rolfe on 07960 097370

We URGENTLY NEED serious secretarial and office support

and slightly less urgently, ideas for what to do on 7 January. If all goes well, we shall have a huge list of supporters to present to the V&A, perhaps after a procession from Russell Street to South Kensington? Please start thinking now!
Together, we can save the Theatre Museum!

All best wishes

Ian Herbert
Chairman, Society for Theatre Research, Co-convenor

There might be trumpets!

There is a last-ditch attempt to save the Theatre Museum from closure.

Supporters of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden have pulled together to launch petition group Guardians of the Theatre Museum - chaired by Save London's Theatre Campaign and the Society for Theatre Research - in a last attempt at saving the institution, which is due to be closed by its owners, the Victoria and Albert Museum, on 7 January 2007. The Guardians include Cameron Mackintosh, Simon Callow, Judi Dench, Zoe Wannamaker, Derek Jacobi and Kwame Kwei-Armah, who are demanding the V&A withdraws its notice of closure on the museum, which has been under threat since Heritage Lottery Fund turned down two grant applications from the V&A for redevelopment. The organisation is looking for alternative ways to manage the institution. The V&A say it is a matter of funding and they are open to new initiatives.

Guardians of the Theatre Museum already have support from various MPs and MEPs, who are challenging the government about why they are closing the museum despite strong protests from the industry. It is aiming to secure 100,000 signatures backing its campaign by Christmas. Supporters can sign the petition by visiting http://www.theatremuseumguardians.org/
Can I urge you to sign the petition and to forward this to other people and ask t
Let's see if we can help to get the requisite number of signatures, and even more.

And if you haven't signed the petition to save Stage and Screen, please can you do so as soon as possible? The link is below, just copy and paste into your browser.

On the topic of the Theatre Museum, as you know we are holding our last ever event (unless we can change the V & A's mind) there tomorrow (Saturday December 2nd). If you meant to book but haven't yet, it's not too late.

Please contact me asap to book or for more details. If you do come, you'll have the chance not only to see Evening Primrose, but to hear (and learn and sing) an unknown Sondheim song.


A week has gone by since we set up the Guardians, and it is time to update you on what has happened. This message goes to those who were at the meeting, and those who have asked to be kept in touch. Do feel free to forward it within your organisation.

Our first task is to make as many people aware as possible of the threat to the museum and organise resistance. The quickest way is to collect supporting voices, through a dedicated website.

Thanks to Fran Birch we bought a website and e-mail address last week. David Lewis, designer of the Theatre Record website, has been working on the Guardians website and it should go live today (Wednesday). There have been problems building in a response to those signing up to the site but it should be running now. Do visit www.theatremuseumguardians.org.uk and see if you can complete the form – if it works you’re able to pass on the good news..

Lots of people, in particular Thelma Holt, Toma Dim and Richard Mangan of Mander and Mitchenson, have been seeking additional names for the Guardians’ council. The latest list is below, and has a good representation of both industry and political figures.

Many people have sent messages of support, a selection of which appears on the website.

The steering group met on Monday to assess results. Richard Jordan has joined us and is working on his extensive list of contacts. I have been working on texts for the website and public statements; Sue Rolfe has been preparing press coverage (final draft of her Press Release is attached – please use it, if you can, in your own press sphere) and political lobbying. Howard Loxton has given admirable support including drawing up mailing lists.

On Monday Ned Sherrin made an appeal to those assembled for the Evening Standard Awards for their support. On Friday there will be a similar appeal at the Theatregoer/Whatsonstage Awards.

Simon Grigg of St Paul’s is organising the distribution of leaflets to West End stage doors and will lobby at the Royal Theatrical Fund’s carol service tonight.. A full page advertisement with the same text (attached) will be in the next issue of Theatre Record.

Alistair Smith has a story about the Guardians in this week’s Stage. Information about the Guardians should go out to all Equity members in their journal this week, and to BECTU members, and probably also to the Musicians’ Union.

Lord (Brian) Rix has put down five written questions in the House of Lords. Equity’s lobbying department is working on a series of questions for the DCMS in the House of Commons.

Various members of the supporting group have meetings scheduled in the next few days with David Lammy and Ken Livingstone.

Once the bandwagon is rolling we can start to look at more than simply stopping the museum closure. If we can collect 100,000 names on the website by Christmas, this should at least demonstrate to the V&A and DCMS that they ought to think again.

All this has been done without yet dipping into the £35 ‘fighting fund’ we collected on 22 November.

What YOU can do now

It’s time for everyone who gets this mailing to help, in however small a way.

ABOVE ALL get your name on the list of Guardians on the website as soon as possible.

THEN tell as many people as you can to do the same. Do you have mailing lists, Christmas card lists, lists of students, lists of professional colleagues, or clients, who can be approached? The website contains all the information you should need to persuade them to join up.

I shall be making sure that the appeal goes to all members of the Critics’ Circle Drama Section, the International Association of Theatre Critics, the committee of the Society for Theatre Research, the e-mailing lists of the Standing Committee of University Drama Departments, the Theatres Information Group and the International Theatre Institute, and the websites of the International Federation for Theatre Research (FIRT) and the International Theatre Museums and Libraries Association (SIBMAS). There will be no harm in anyone duplicating my work!

Representatives of organisations – please tell your members about the campaign by whatever available means. Agents – please tell your clients.

Do you know any press or PR people who might be willing to give their services in spreading the word or collecting names? Every one of them ought to be on our side.

Does anyone have access to the mailing lists of individual theatres?

Can we get a version of the advertisement into theatre programmes?

Can anyone place the attached advert, or print it off as leaflets for distribution?

WE DESPERATELY NEED LEADING THEATRE NAMES WHO WOULD BE WILLING TO TAKE PART IN BRIEF INTERVIEWS EITHER FOR TELEVISION OR THE EVENING STANDARD IN THE NEXT WEEK – contact Sue Rolfe on 07960 097370

We URGENTLY NEED serious secretarial and office support

- and slightly less urgently, ideas for what to do on 7 January. If all goes well, we shall have a huge list of supporters to present to the V&A, perhaps after a procession from Russell Street to South Kensington? Please start thinking now!


Together, we can save the Theatre Museum!

All best wishes

Ian Herbert
Chairman, Society for Theatre Research
Co-convenor

GUARDIANS OF THE THEATRE MUSEUM MEETING
The following attachments give full details, together with agenda and proposals.

Guardians Agenda  Guardians 9 Nov  Guardians Proposal

Guardian Minutes  Press release


Here are some reports from the press and our own initial letter to the V&A.

Simon Callow says the Theatre Museum has a unique combination of the scholarly and interactive

It looks like curtains for the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. The Victoria and Albert Museum has announced that it intends to re-absorb it into its main South Kensington operation.
Despite considerable success with the Theatre Museum's innovative educational programme, some smashing small- scale exhibitions and an unparalleled video record of virtually every significant production of recent times, it is to be ousted from its central premises.
Money is tight in the museum world and the Covent Garden building is difficult, all plans to expand or transform it having failed to attract funding from either the public or the private sector. To the trustees of the V&A, simply returning it to its former base no doubt seems an elegant solution to a number of problems.

But from where I sit, as a member of the Theatre Museum committee appointed, five years ago, to put the theatrical profession's point of view, it can only seem to be a retreat.
It's a pretty humiliating one at that, taking the organisation out of the theatre and into the museum, a betrayal of the triumphant impulse that took it in the opposite direction.
Some 30 years ago, Roy Strong, the splendidly flamboyant director of the V&A, all floppy hats and Zapata moustachios, and as much impresario as scholar, acknowledged the growing pressure from our profession to accept that the magnificent theatre collection, quietly gathering dust in South Kensington for half a century before that, was different in kind from any of his other collections.

The most physical of all the arts needed to be much more actively visible than the tapestries, ceramics and golden chalices so exquisitely but reverently displayed in the genteel surroundings of the Royal Borough. The theatre collection needed presentation, it needed context and it needed to be located in the heart of the West End.
Strong and the head of the theatre collection, Alexander Schouvaloff, went out looking for premises. They rejected Somerset House and found instead, in the newly transformed Covent Garden, the former head offices of a fruiterers, right opposite the Opera House, two minutes from Drury Lane, ideally situated between the old 18th-century theatre district and today's.
In 1987, the doors of the Theatre Museum were opened with great fanfare, to the acclaim of the press and the profession and to the great interest of the public, who thronged through its galleries in large numbers.

All that enthusiasm was not misplaced. The idea is a great one. It is obvious that the theatre - including opera, ballet, mime and all the allied performing arts - which is so central to the identity of the West End, and such a focus for Britain's image abroad, should be celebrated in a dedicated building in which it can share its secrets, its techniques, its history and its processes with the public.

The Theatre Museum is perfectly placed to do three things: to intrigue and inform audiences; to stimulate a profession often so busy with the here and now that it hardly has time to reflect on its own history or learn from what is going on elsewhere in the world; and to feed into the general education system, in which theatre currently plays so woefully small a part.
It is often objected that the idea of a Theatre Museum is a paradox. Far from it. It is a unique combination of the scholarly - the collection, unrivalled in the world, which consists of documents, objects, complete archives and video recordings, all superbly preserved, catalogued and annotated - and the interactive, offering brilliantly imaginative demonstrations of the physical crafts that are involved in making a piece of theatre, breaking it down and putting it back together before the viewers' eyes, involving people directly in make-up, costume, light, sound, space.

Theatre arts are all arts of the possible: physical, tangible, transient phenomena. Even at its most exquisitely achieved, the magic is still rough. It needs to be seen, smelt, touched. None of this can happen within the quite properly sedate portals of the V&A, nor should it. The Theatre Museum is the place for it.

So what's the problem? First, the building Strong and Schouvaloff found proved, for all its perfect location, to have severe limitations in terms of public access and adaptability for major exhibitions, which are so important for attracting new audiences. Second, the Theatre Museum's relationship with the V&A has, from the earliest days, proved awkward, precisely because of its quite distinct character, to which the usual curatorial rules simply don't apply.
Strong and Schouvaloff fell out spectacularly early on and the love affair has never fully resumed, though ironically, the present V&A director, Mark Jones, has been more publicly supportive of the Theatre Museum than any of his predecessors, seeing its potential to change the profile of the V&A. The stumbling block in this instance has been the increasingly limited premises.

Various brilliant plans have been drawn up to adapt it, but they have all been rejected by the Heritage Lottery Fund, mostly on grounds of cost (upwards of £12 million) and the future has been clouded by recrimination and intrigue. Twice, the Evening Standard has fought a campaign on the Theatre Museum's behalf and twice it has been reprieved.

The truth of the matter is that in the unending negotiations - the compromises and counter-compromises - between South Kensington and Covent Garden, the original vision has been lost and the museum is perceived as unendingly involved in a rearguard defensive action.
We should stop apologising. London and the theatre deserve the best theatre museum in the world. It should not be a mere adjunct of the V&A, though the superb work of cataloguing and conserving with which that great organisation is associated must, of course, continue. It is to be hoped that other great theatrical organisations - the Opera House, the National Theatre, the RSC - will work in conjunction with it to show off their rarely glimpsed treasures. We have the material. We have the skills. We have the imagination.

What is needed is a grand - and theatrical - New Theatre Museum in the centre of town, a kind of theatrical Disneyland, filled with dramatised exhibitions, full of sound and light and sensation, plus demonstrations of the latest theatre technology, with major themed shows - like the great 1950s Diaghilev exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival, which had a huge influence on the theatre of its time - featuring regularly.

The building could be custom-built, although personally I'd favour premises with theatrical associations. Perfect for the purpose would have been the Hippodrome, that Cinderella of West End auditoriums, abandoned as a theatre, doomed as a disco, a shabby and seedy monument on the edge of Leicester Square, dense with theatre history. But it is not available. Next year, it becomes a casino. The New Theatre Museum could be a bastion against the casinoisation of London.

It will not be cheap. Given a clear objective like this, however, the theatre and the whole profession will fight for it all the way, as it never has done so far; between them the Mayor's office, the Society of London Theatres, the City of Westminster and Visit London should commit themselves to what would surely become an attraction to rival and even outstrip the Eye, Madame Tussauds and the Tower of London. The Olympics gives us the perfect deadline.


Charles Spencer wrote in The Telegraph Review on Saturday 18th November:
"
My plan was to write some good old-fashioned knocking copy. The Theatre Museum in Covent Garden is to close in January. fonowing two failed lottery applications and an unsuccessful rescue bid in conjunction with the Royal Opera House. The idea was to dance on the museum's grave and cry "good riddance!"

Isn't the whole idea of a theatre museum a contradiction in terms? Surely theatre is about the fleeting moment and the live performance, not dusty artefacts in glass cases. Why waste money improving the Theatre Museum when London's West End theatres are in such urgent need of restoration?

The fact that the collection will be kept safe. that the archive win be accessible to scholars, and that the museum's parent organisation, the V&A, is promising regular theatre-based exhibitions all seemed to render the museum's continuing eidstence unnecessary.

A visit one afternoon confirmed my prejudices. The subterranean premises are claustrophobi; the temporary exhibitions seemed excessively wordy, and the permanent displays struck me as deadly. Other visitors seemed to share my view; people wandered around but rarely stopped to look and, when they did, they didn't look for long.

However, the theatre's director, Geoffrey Marsh, got wind of my intentions and called me in for tea and biscuits. And what a persuasive chap he proved. He agrees that the museum is far from perfect, which was the whole point of the lottery applications: the place needs a radical overhaul,though even in its present state it attracts some 200,000 visitors a year.

But the museum is desperately short of funds since it opened 20 years ago, with a pathetic budget of only £70,000 for its annual exhibition programme. A single big showe at the British Museum or Royal Aacdemy can cost a £1 million.
The museum also has the problem of presenting what is known in the trade as "intangible heritage". It can't show theatre itself, as other museums can present a painting or a vase, but only objects associated with its subject. How do you exhibit the unexhibitable?

Well, one way, suggests Marsh, is by getting the visitors directly involved with the exhibits. He showed me a fascinating film of visitors moving speedily on from the dated exhibition cases, but getting really involved when directly confronted with a costume from the great Stravinsky ballet, The Rite of Spring. They were asked to imagine - and then enact - the kind of movement that might be associated with it, and suddenly the punters were providing their own performance in this museum of the performing arts.

Marsh then gave me a practical demonstration of the "movement-based learning" he would like
to see become regular practice at the museum, if by some miracle it survives. He took me into the galleries and asked me to imitate the postures of three small sculptures. One was of Garrick as Richard III, a second of Irving in The Bells, the third of the celebrated clown, Grimaldi. And by being forced to look at them closely in order to imitate them, I found I was serionsly concentrating on objects I would normally hurry past and asking questions about them.
Why was Garrick adopting such an absurdly camp pose? What was troubling the deep-eyed Irving? Was there anything remotely funny about Grimaldi's rictus? For perhaps the first time at
the Theatre Museum I felt involved and curious. And now, damn it, the place is about to close.
"I don't want to sound self-pitying," says Marsh "but I don't believe the Theatre Museum has ever really had an opportunity to show what it can do."
What's urgently needed is a benefactor - for £7-£8 million you could have the place named after you - and for the V&A to relinquish control of this awkward offspring it has never loved. Are there any multimillionaires out there? If so they need to act fast.


Letter from NCS to the V&A Trustees:

Ms Paula Ridley OBE.,                                               3rd April, 2006
Chair of the Trustees,
Victoria & Albert Museum,
69 Thomas More House,                               
Barbican,
London EC2Y 8BT

Dear Ms Ridley,

The Future of the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden

On behalf of over 400 members of the Noël Coward Society,  I should like to put on record the very high regard in which we hold London’s National Museum of The Performing Arts.  The failure to secure funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the refurbishment was indeed most disappointing, especially in view of the amount of hard work and commitment which must have gone into preparing the bid. 

The Noël Coward Society would like to offer all the help it can give you in trying to secure the future for this unique facility.  We recognise the difficulties inherent in the transformation of the Old Flower Market, into a vital display, exhibitions, archive and performance space for theatre, drama, opera, dance, circus and music; but nevertheless, this is indeed possible in the twenty first century.  Alas it seems that the only thing which is holding back the project is a lack of due recognition of worth on the part of those who decide how to allocate publicly-raised funding.

Why is the Theatre Museum, or to use its far more accurate name – the National Museum of The Performing Arts - considered to be so important?  The Society does not need to convince you of this, I know, but I outline our reasons for considering it so, in the hope that they may be of assistance in future discussions with the Trustees and other bodies such as the Arts Council.

  1. The United Kingdom is unrivalled throughout the world for the quality of its theatre arts.  Our theatrical history is one of this country’s highest achievements.  We have a wealth and breadth of talent in this field of human endeavour which is truly outstanding and which gives sustenance to a vital requirement of the human psyche. The West End of London is the greatest centre of performance in the world and the Theatre Museum is situated at its very heart.

  1. Consider the high achievers in life, whose backgrounds may have been lacking or underprivileged.   The students the educationalists describe as having “value added”.  Each and every one of them has been stimulated and transformed at some point in their lives by having access to some aspect of literature, music or the performing arts.  The huge current success of the musical, Billy Elliot, is the story of one such high achiever.  The social responsibility of retaining this Museum could not be more important today.

  1. A Museum for Performing Arts must by its very nature be a living space, which will stimulate and educate young people.  Live events and educational facilities should take place side by side with the exhibitions and vast archive material.  The collections need to remain near the very spot where Eliza Dolittle sold her flowers and contemporary practice in all sectors must be highlighted.

As you may know, our parent organisation – The Noël Coward Foundation – has done much over the years to help the Museum.  At the end of 2005 they supported a ‘Comedy of Coward Festival’, with three events which played to a packed theatre.    First Giles Brandreth, Richard Briers, Penelope Keith and Thea Sharock performed a roundtable conversation about playing Coward.  Second was a Masterclass -‘Coward in Love’ and the third event was a Revue, which took place in the picture gallery, of words and music by Coward, wonderfully performed by Liz Robertson and Denis King.

We would like to do more to help.  We regard the Museum as our London home as every year we hold our Annual General Meeting in the Studio Theatre area on a Saturday nearest to Noël Coward’s birthday.  Our members then walk round the corner to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for a flower-laying ceremony at the statue of Noël Coward in the foyer.  Last December we welcomed Dame Maggie Smith and the year before that Lord Attenborough. 

Please get in touch with me if you think there is anything the Society can now do to help you.  Is there anyone else to whom you would like us to write?  Please do everything in your power to save one of our greatest treasures.

Yours sincerely,

Barbara Longford

Copies to:
Mr David Lammy, MP,
Minister for Culture,
Department of Culture, Media & Sport,
2 – 4 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5DY.
Mr Jonathan Altaras,
Trustee of the V & A,
Flat 1, 27 Bolton Street, London W1J 8BW

 
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