Working with colleagues in non-national museums has always been a vital part of what we do. One of the ways we do this is through The Purchase Grant Fund, which has been administered by the V&A since 1881, and now works in partnership with Arts Council England. The Fund’s support helps non-nationally funded museums, galleries, record offices and specialist libraries in England and Wales to purchase significant additions to their collections. Over the last century and half, the budget has come from various government departments; currently we grant from a £750,000 annual budget, provided by Arts Council England National Lottery funding. In the funding year 2019 – 20, the Fund awarded grants to 65 organisations across England and Wales, helping them to buy acquisitions valued at over £2,500,000.
Staff at non-nationally funded organisations may apply for a grant of up to 50% of the asking price for any object, of any medium or age, which relate to history, literature or the arts. All applications are reviewed by an expert in the particular field; as well as offering financial support, the Fund is an important conduit for the expertise of its advisers, who – in return – benefit from the knowledge of applicants and develop an understanding of regional collections.
Two recent, very different, grants demonstrate how, even in this very challenging year, the Fund supports colleagues who, despite wholescale museum closures, have continued to research, develop and build their collections, making them even more relevant to their local communities.
Curators at Gallery Oldham identified a set of 4 photographs by Mahtab Hussain, a contemporary artist primarily concerned with documenting the British Asian experience. They were shown at the gallery in 2019 and were welcomed by visitors: ‘The Mahtab Hussain portraits are gorgeous. Really love seeing a more pensive, positive representation of British Asians’ said one visitor. A grant from the Fund enabled Gallery Oldham to better represent their communities, and to use them in learning programmes exploring identity.
Researching objects to be sold at auction during lockdown has been particularly difficult for curators because of a lack of access to research tools – and the inability to visit auction houses to inspect material. Staff at St Albans Museum were delighted, therefore, to spot a very rare example of the work of the medieval scriptorium at St Albans Abbey which was to be sold at auction at the beginning of July. The promise of a 50% grant from the Purchase Grant Fund meant that museum staff could bid with confidence at auction for this manuscript – a cutting from Life of St Martin of Tours (in Latin) by Sulpicius Severus in the hand of ‘scribe B’, the chief scribe at the Abbey in the middle of the 12th century. Completely different from the Mathab Hussain photograph, it is, significant for St Albans’ collections. While fragments of work produced by the scriptorium exist in some UK collections, there are in none in St Albans. The Abbey of St Albans was influential enough to be of national significance from the Norman conquest until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century, yet the dispersal of its contents means that little survives to tell the story of this period in St Albans’ history – the most important in the town’s history since the development of the Roman town of Verulamium – but it is hugely under-represented within the museum collections.
The Purchase Grant Fund remains open for business and is considering applications every day. Funding is secured until 2022, and we hope will continue for much longer: in 2031 it will celebrate 150 years of helping regional museums build dynamic collections.