At the end of a walk and talk, I asked the writer Steven D’Souza if he would like to donate an object.

Steven is an internationally renowned educator and thinker.  With Diana Renner he wrote the award winning “Not Knowing


He gave me the V&A Madjeski Garden because he enjoyed watching the people and, he admitted, he maybe enjoyed it more than looking at the objects.


Madejski Garden, V&A. Photograph copyright V&A Museum

The Madjeski Garden sits within the four internal walls of the V&A at South Ken – it is open to the sky.


This reminded me of an “inexpert tour” that I had helped Steve Chapman lead for a curator at the V&A.  

As the Inexpert, you are given a topic to talk about in an interesting environment and whilst having possibly no expertise in the topic, you must be the most expert you can whilst making everything up.

For the curator, a participant on the V&A Innovative Leadership programme, we asked her to give us a tour of the V&A where nothing she said was true.   

Of the many un-truths that emerged – the world Frisbee championships, the Dwarf court, pig robing, to name but a few – the one that most struck me was our encounter with an empty display case.

In a museum objects maybe moved to go into an exhibition, conservation or out on loan.  Hence you may find the occasional empty display case.


Display case Colonna, Edouard, born 1862 – died 1948. Photograph copyright V&A Museum

When we asked our inexpert tour guide why the case was empty, she replied, “Because that is what the museum collects – display cases.  We have one of the finest collections of cases in the world.  Our problem is that overnight, curators sneak in to fill them with objects.”


This delightful revelation was a brilliant improvised re-framing (sic!).


And it leads to a number of thoughts, one of which I shall share below.


What influence do cases and boxes have on an organisation?


Display cases are, in the majority of cases (sic), six sided – four sides around, one on top, and the whole sitting on a base.


They are very similar to the exhibition white box room – an empty space for curators to fill.


For an organisation whose chief expertise is curating, the focus will be on the objects – how they are interpreted, how they are displayed.

My reflection is that a Museum is dedicated to the objects not changing.

Cases are made for objects, with great attention to the environment that the cases create – one’s that should be as conducive to the objects’ stasis. 

The cases are put in larger cases, which we call rooms or galleries.

And into these larger cases we put individuals to look after the objects and the visitors.  


Contrast these actions with a performance organisation such as the National Theatre.  The chief expertise is in directing and producing.  The main resource with which Rufus Norris, as director of the NT, works is largely people.  People are diverse, active, complex and subjective.  Objects are diverse, inactive, complicated and objective.


I suggest this creates a very different organisational dynamic.


Placing people on a stage and asking them to move, speak and interact, is different from placing people in boxes (offices).


And how might this idea extend to manufacturing – is the over-riding dynamic a mechanistic one where individuals are cogs in a machine?

Or the financial sector where individuals are perhaps measured on their net worth to the organisation?


Look gently but intently at organisations and I am sure we can find deterministic core purposes and expertises.


The question is therefore, how we enable the fundamental re-frame of purpose and people that might loosen up the constraining metaphor.


Viewing the V&A as a place to look at people rather than objects or a collector of cases not objects, might offer some examples…