News Column

America's grandest museum sets sights on Olympic Park to build a British outpost: Smithsonian in talks with mayor after invitation to set up in east London's 'cultural quarter'

July 20, 2014

Vanessa Thorpe, Arts and Media Correspondent



One of America's most revered cultural institutions, The Smithsonian, is in talks about building an outpost in London. The Observer can reveal that the Washington DC-based museum and research complex is one of a select number of international heritage and arts organisations invited to set up a site in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London.

At the end of last year, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, announced that his scheme to build on the legacy of the 2012 Games would include the development of a large cultural quarter on the Stratford waterfront grounds originally cleared for the Olympics. A potential 10,000 jobs would be created in the area, it was promised, and early agreements drawn up with the Victoria & Albert Museum and University College London were followed by discussions with Sadler's Wells, the London dance theatre, which is also hoping to put up a venue in the park.

The Smithsonian, which is run by the US government, is the latest cultural organisation to be lined up for inclusion. Its current empire encompasses 19 museums, nine research facilities and a zoo, and it aims to improve understanding of American history and the American way of life. A series of meetings have been held with the mayor's office to draw up a deal.

An English base for the Smithsonian might be seen as an apt foreign venture because it was founded on a donation from James Smithson, the accomplished British chemist. The illegitimate child of the 1st Duke of Northumberland, Smithson was born in 1765 in Paris as James Lewis Macie, but he later switched to his father's family surname. At his death in 1829, his great wealth went to a nephew, but when he died childless the estate passed "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men".

This weekend a spokeswoman for Johnson told the Observer: "The mayor has made clear his ambitions for Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park with a view that it becomes home to a range of prestigious higher education, cultural and technological institutions. Sadler's Wells, the V&A and UCL are already working with London Legacy Development Corporation with a view to occupying the site. Exploratory discussions with several overseas bodies are being conducted which remain commercially confidential until further public announcements may be appropriate."

The idea of designing a cultural hub for the city has prompted comparisons with Prince Albert's grand Victorian project to create a concentrated area of museums and cultural venues in South Kensington with the proceeds of the Great Exhibitions of 1851. This 86-acre zone, still home to the V&A, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Art, the English National Ballet and the Royal Albert Hall, came to be known as "Albertopolis". The new east London project has been dubbed "Olympicopolis" or even "Borisopolis".

Speaking last year, Johnson said he wanted "to squeeze out every drop of potential" for the former Olympic site. "The idea behind Olympicopolis is simple and draws on the extraordinary foresight of our Victorian ancestors," he said. "We want to use Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as a catalyst for the industries and technologies in which London now leads the world in order to create thousands of new jobs."

At the centre of the site would be an academic-led area, south of Anish Kapoor's red Orbit sculpture. UCL, which already has its built environment department, The Bartlett, the Slade School of Fine Art and faculties of science and engineering, has plans to complement its Bloomsbury base with a new centre in the park; this would comprise a centre for culture and heritage, a design school, a new biotech hub and an educational technology centre. The V&A's plans, in turn, would enable more of its permanent collection to be displayed, as well as providing a showcase for temporary and touring exhibitions in partnership with other international museums and galleries.

This spring Sadler's Wells revealed that the Olympic Park was a probable site for its proposed 500-seat theatre. Designed as a fourth performance space to host contemporary dance work, it would form part of a cultural and educational hub if discussions, at an "early stage", were fruitful. Wayne McGregor, the choreographer, has also confirmed that he would open two dance studios on the site.

Captions:

A great African bush elephant is the centrepiece of the Rotunda in the Smithsonian Institution's museum of natural history in Washington. Alamy



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Source: Observer (UK)


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