Extremes on right and left are attacking our museums. We need to defend them says V&A director Tristram Huntby Tristram Hunt / October 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
On the lower ground floor of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington is a small, 15th-century beechwood casket, mounted with gilt copper alloy straps, and painted with four pairs of seated tawny lions. It is an object of deep beauty elucidating the history of northern European design and, as a jewellery box, reveals habits of aristocratic gift-giving.
But behind the casket stands another story. It belonged to the collection of the politician Ralph Bernal (1783-1854), part of a cadre of wealthy Jewish individuals—most famously Lionel de Rothschild—who successfully broke into the upper echelons of mid-Victorian British society. Born in Tower Hill, into a Sephardic family of Spanish descent, Bernal converted to Christianity and made his way through the law and Westminster before ending up as President of the British Archaeological Society. On his death, hundreds of items—from the casket to Sèvres porcelain to stained glass—entered the South Kensington collection, but Bernal’s Jewish heritage and his role at a crucial moment in Anglo-Jewish integration have never been properly highlighted in the museum’s interpretation.
There is an alternative path towards Bernal. His entry into politics was funded by an inheritance from his father, Jacob Israel Bernal, euphemistically described as “a merchant trading with the West Indies.” The elegant artefacts that were acquired by the V&A were, in fact, paid for by the profits of the Richmond Estate in the parish of St Ann in the colony of Jamaica. Here it was that enslaved Africans worked the sugar cane fields. “They have no half Fridays, no payment for extra labour, no salt fish, no field cooks. Invalids get no food, nor old people any support from the estate,” as two English eyewitnesses wrote, while Bernal junior opposed abolition in parliament, and happily augmented his porcelain collection. And, again, until recently, no mention was made of the hideous provenance of Bernal’s wealth and how slave profits have seeped into the V&A galleries.
Now, step across the entrance hall and into the Europe Galleries where you will find, in Room 7, a sumptuous blue ceramic basin from…