Victoria and Albert Musuem

It is a space dedicated to the fruits of patronage. Against whitewashed walls and beneath a startling glass canopy, the Leonardos and Donatellos, the choir screens and sculptures, the tapestries and caskets speak to an age of extraordinary wealth and aesthetic ambition. But the newly opened medieval and renaissance galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum also testify to the fact that our own epoch of remarkable cultural investment – like Florence after the Medici – is shuddering to a halt.

The fear is that a collapse in private philanthropy combined with a political arms race of expenditure cuts and quango-bashing could soon return our galleries and museums to the dark days of charges, closures and pandering to the familiar. Nothing less than the democratic capacity of British culture – the ability both to fund great art and open up life chances – is what is at stake.

It began a decade ago with the relaunch of the Royal Opera House following its £178m refit and has concluded with the re-engineered V&A and the equally stunning transformation of the Ashmolean in Oxford. Crumbling Victorian edifices have undergone architectural open-heart surgery and fusty old collections have been taken into the 21st century. Indeed, the Noughties marked a period of unprecedented postwar cultural prowess.

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Tristram Hunt
Guardian

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