On 14 and 15 May 2015, Chelsea College of Arts is hosting the conference Victorian Futures: Culture, Democracy and the State on the Road to Olympicopolis, in collaboration with Middlesex University and the Victoria and Albert Museum. We asked Professor Malcolm Quinn, UAL Associate Dean of Research and Director of the Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Graduate School, to tell us what the conference will involve and why it is relevant today.

Taking place a week after the UK General Election,Victorian Futures will focus on how the agenda for state-sponsored access to the arts in Britain has developed since the Reform Act of 1832 and the Victorian Era. We will use history to think about the future, and show how calls for greater public access to the arts in the 1830s led to the democratic visions of the Great Exhibition and Albertopolis in 1851, which were reprised in the Festival of Britain in 1951 and are now re-envisioned in plans for the ‘Olympicopolis’ site in London. I spoke to a selection of our high-profile speakers who will be appearing at the conference to discuss how the cultural movement of Victorian era continues to influence our society.

Victoria and Albert Museum Director Martin Roth said:

“The success of the ‘Albertopolis’ complex of Victorian cultural institutions in South Kensington, of which the V&A is one, continues to illustrate the strength of Victorian policies on cultural democracy and the importance of state support for the arts. But as we develop a new vision for ‘Olympicopolis’ in east London, we must not only look at Victorian achievements but also at the goals they did not reach. Henry Cole believed, for example, that international exhibitions should promote international peace and intercultural understanding, or in his words, ‘stop nations going to blows as hastily and foolishly as they are wont to do’. Are we any closer to achieving this difficult goal today? I hope that this conference will give us the opportunity to read Victorian history not as a comfort, but as a challenge.”

Crystal_Palace

Interior painting of The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, London

Lucy Kimbell, AHRC Design Research Fellow, Policy Lab and principal research fellow at the University of Brighton, says that Victorian Futures will show us how: “The history that is shaping our collective future in the UK includes both the visible, aesthetic and material but also the processual and infrastructural.” Kimbell also argues that the conference will help us to address an important question: “What comes with our Victorian educational, political and cultural institutions and how do they enable particular kinds of learning and participation and exclude others? The analytical task is to work out what we need to keep and what to change or adapt.”

Kieran Long, Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital V&A, one of two keynote speakers on the first day of the conference, said:

Victorian Futures is vital for us right now, at a time when the whole notion of the public realm is at stake and under pressure, to think again about the lessons our Victorian forebears can teach us about education and civic pride in the context of the complexity of the digitally enabled 21st century.”

Our other keynote speaker on day one of Victorian Futures is Charles Saumarez Smith, Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, who sees the conference as a chance to engage with some vital issues for public culture and the arts that have remained unresolved over the past hundred and eighty years. Saumarez Smith said:

“It’s interesting to look back on the decade of the 1830s, immediately following the Great Reform Bill, and to see how many of the questions asked then in parliament were the same questions which need to be asked today: how can public money be used to enhance the arts? what is the role of government? and what is the role of museums?”

However Graeme Evans, Professor of Urban Cultures and Design at Middlesex University, who is a member of the closing panel of Victorian Futures which examines the route from Albertopolis to Olympicopolis and beyond, says that history offers a cautionary lesson: “If history teaches us anything, cultural democracy should be a right; futuristic masterplans and grand place-making on the other hand (as recent history shows) is anything but democratic – or cultural.”

The event promises to answer and discuss many of the questions raised above, with lively debates and the chance to meet and network with organisations such as the Royal Academy, V&A and the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), who are responsible for delivering the ‘Olympicopolis’ project. A two-day student pass is available for £36 and can be booked through the UAL website. We’ll also be tweeting at @VFutures. We hope you’ll be able to join us.