Nicholas Coleridge, chairman of Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a veteran fashion journalist, speaks to Bhumika Popli about the role of museums in a free society.
Nicholas Coleridge is the chairman of Victoria and Albert Museum, and of Condé Nast Britain. He is also on the council of the Royal College of Art, and has been a long-time collector of Indian miniature paintings and 20th-century fashion photographs.
Much of his work, and indeed his career, is situated at the crossroads of fashion and art. Coleridge has also written 14 books, both fiction and non-fiction. He was recently in India for a two-day international symposium, organised by Kolkata’s CIMA gallery at Delhi’s India International Centre, where he spoke about creativity and freedom.
Q. You have spent a considerable part of your career in fashion journalism. What got you interested in this genre of writing?
A. I became interested in magazines before I became interested in fashion. It was glossy magazines which attracted me—their glossy paper, the way the ink sits on the paper, their high quality, the blend of wit and journalism and photography. I was 15 when I first knowingly saw a glossy magazine, and I liked it at once. I found magazines intriguing. If you work in glossy magazines, fashion is soon part of it. I became fascinated by the ecology of fashion, the personalities, the rivalries and so forth. And the great wealth that successful designers can accrue. I wrote a book calledThe Fashion Conspiracy, which became the number one bestseller, and that taught me a lot. I interviewed all the designers, as well as the top customers in New York, London, Paris. And those at the sweatshops of India, Cyprus and London.
Q. We understand that you’re related to the distinguished English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Could you tell us about your engagement with his work?
A. I learnt the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by heart at school, or anyway the famous poems. Every school I went to, a master would say “seeing we have a Coleridge in the class, let’s all learn ‘Kubla Khan’ or ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. This happened over and over again. I have remained very interested in my famous ancestor, but sadly I am a novelist, not a poet myself.
Q. With your move to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as chairman in 2015, your attention shifted towards the arts. How do you view the many collaborations going on around the world between fashion and the arts? How are both these industries benefitting from each other?
A. Fashion and the arts are very close and have been for 20 years. I think the top fashion designers, as far back as Christian Dior, have recognised the link. And then the Italians and Americans—Prada, Hilfiger, there are many. And the Japanese designers, too. They are two closely aligned branches of creativity—visual, frequently glamorous. Fashion designers love to associate with artists, and sometimes vice versa too.
Q. Tell us about the new initiatives of the Victoria and Albert Museum?
A. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has been on a roll for 10 years. Visitor numbers are spiralling, 4.4 million last year, up by 26% from the year before. A series of high-profile exhibitions have powered it—David Bowie, Alexander McQueen, Pink Floyd, Dior. But also some excellent secondary ones—The Fabric of India was one such. A balance of blockbusters and more scholarly, more niche subjects. Big audiences, a lot of press and attention. London museums have become big gathering places.
At the same time, we are building and launching new museums—cultural palaces, in Shekou in China on the Pearl River Delta, and a wonderful new museum by the Japanese designer Kengo Kuma in Dundee, Scotland. And now we are building new big new museums and facilities in East London. So it is very exciting.
Q. What can India learn from big museums in the West, in terms of getting more people interested in visiting museums and offering a unique experience to visitors?
A. India has some excellent museums and strong collections. I visit as many [museums] as I can. I think Western museums have done an excellent job in updating themselves and making the programmes more vibrant and being open for longer hours, and trying to make themselves more fun—with music, rock music, drinks at events, lively lectures, late-night gatherings. We have worked hard to attract young audiences as well as older citizens. The big new Sackler Courtyard at the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum], with its white porcelain tiles, and the new Blavatnik Entrance has opened the whole place up. It is seen as cooler and more fun, as well as being seen as a place of scholarship.
Q. How do you imagine museums to evolve in the near future?
A. In a world where people, the young especially, live in smaller and smaller flats and spaces, museums provide a place to congregate, if you get them right. We are lucky to have seven miles of galleries at the V&A and 2.7 million treasures—so lots to see. And big spaces, and excellent cafes and restaurants.
Q. Could you talk to us about your creative engagement with India?
A. I have been coming to India regularly since 1984. I have been here more than 90 times now. It is my favourite country, equal to Italy and Great Britain. Originally I used to holiday in India, then made friends here, then got engaged to my wife Georgia here (in Kolkata), and later got heavily involved with setting up Condé Nast here. It has been a great success, thanks to Alex Kuruvilla, the managing director, and the four high profile editors. It has been a financial success and creative success. I am biased, but I regard Vogue India as excellent, and so are GQ, AD and Traveller. Beautiful, intelligent, inspiring magazines.
Q. Tell us about your new book, The Glossy Years.
A. The Glossy Yearsare my memoirs, to be published by Penguin in September. Four-hundred pages. The story of my life from birth to last week—school, journalism, newspapers, magazines, museums, marriage, old girlfriends, old bosses, all of it. Celebrities, politicians, designers, models, maharajas, mayors, princes, all of it. I have tried to make it quite candid and indiscreet. I mean, why not? Who wants to read a dull memoir? We are all too busy to be bored.
Q. Could museums be seen as genuinely safe spaces, where creative freedom is fostered?
A. Museums are often seen as neutral spaces which are politically unaligned. Culture and scholarship are seldom slavishly political. So museums can be places for debate, for lectures of all kinds, for seminars, gathering places for all sorts of different groups. At the V&A, the “Friday Lates”, when thousands of mostly young people flood the museum after work on a Friday evening, have different themes each time, and music. That’s a good example of museums using their buildings—and their safe spaces—to the full.
Q. What are the common challenges faced by museums across the world?
A. A lot of great museums were built in the Victorian era, and have challenges of construction and maintenance. It is vital that the fabric of these buildings is kept up to scratch. This usually requires help fromthe government and philanthropists—both. When museums are refurbished and brought up to date, visitor numbers spiral. We have seen this over and over again. And they have encouraged a diversity of visitors too.