Building blocks

Paul Thompson's first priority as the head of the Royal College of Art will be to ensure a smooth move to a new campus

November 19, 2009

For someone with a passion for museums, it must have been a bit of a wrench to leave a job running one in New York to take up a post in UK higher education.

But Paul Thompson has taken on a role that, according to his predecessor, is the "sexiest" job in the sector.

And, as the new head of the Royal College of Art, he has not left the world of museums far behind - the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are all right on his doorstep.

"It was an incredible privilege and honour to be offered the position. It is a powerhouse of an institution," he said.

Before taking up his new post in September, Dr Thompson ran the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in the US - the only museum in the country devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Prior to that, he headed London's Design Museum. Education was a focus in both roles. At the Design Museum he tackled the issue of design having been introduced into the national curriculum with "woefully inadequate resources".

In US schools, design was not compulsory, but the Cooper-Hewitt museum developed more than 200 lesson plans highlighting its relevance to different disciplines.

He also oversaw a masters programme for 100 students on site that enabled them to work with curators and "develop connoisseurship, because they can actually pick up, look at, and understand an object".

Based on Fifth Avenue, Cooper-Hewitt is in one of New York's, and the world's, most expensive neighbourhoods, but Dr Thompson, 50, said that when he arrived it was not addressing ways in which design could solve some of its most pressing needs, and he worked to change that.

"There's always a danger that people can see design as something that's superfluous, as an add-on, and as something that really only benefits the very wealthiest," he said. "But I think if we are going to make a persuasive case for the importance of design we have got to demonstrate that it can actually tackle timeless issues such as ageing, humanitarian relief, climate change and poverty."

In his new post, his first priority will be to ensure the move into the college's new second campus in Battersea, South London, goes smoothly - and to raise £12 million for the final phase of the development. This week sees the opening of the 172-year-old painting department's new building there.

"Having the opportunity to launch a whole new chapter in this department's distinguished story is an amazing way to begin my career here," Dr Thompson said.

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