Madeleine Haddon *21: From A&A to the V&A East

Feb. 12, 2023

Creating the Museum of the Future

In her new role as Curator of V&A East, Madeleine Haddon *21 has the riveting and crucial task of establishing the museum of the future. Scheduled to open in spring 2025 in East London, V&A East is the new campus of the acclaimed Victoria & Albert Museum. The new museum aims to engage the transformative power of art and design to inspire the creatives of tomorrow, says Haddon. "Our mission is to elevate diverse, transhistorical artists and objects that speak to the most pressing issues of our past, present and future." At the heart of this mission is the imperative to create a museum that welcomes the broadest possible racial and socioeconomic population. Haddon envisions a space that gives visitors a sense of belonging - and that allows them to have transformative experiences with works of art. “As one of the first Black people to occupy many of the curatorial roles I have had within the museum world, it is of the utmost importance to me to pave the way for future generations of people of color to know that they belong within museums,” she said, “not only as visitors but as directors, curators, educators and more.”

Haddon’s own experience feeling out of place in museums significantly motivated her career choice of becoming a curator.  “Greater inclusivity and diversity among museum audiences, professionals and objects is at the core of my ethos, and also at the heart of the mission of V&A East,” she said.  “Our museum is committed to inclusivity, diversity, equity, social justice and sustainability, and all of these values will be reflected through the extraordinary objects visitors will experience at V&A East.”

“Museums of tomorrow should speak for individuals, and that should begin today.”

Haddon’s graduate work at Princeton focused on the significance of race and gender and their representations within 19th- and 20th-century European, American, Caribbean and Latin American art and culminated in her 2021 dissertation titled “Local Color: Race, Gender and Spanishness in French and Spanish Painting, 1855–1927.”  “My scholarship argues that visual culture was a critical medium for understanding, negotiating and articulating racial identity, given the difficulties of language to describe new mixtures of races and colors,” she explained. Haddon recognizes conversations about race and its representation as being core to discussions of historical works of art. “My A&A education gave me the tools to apply this critical framework to all aspects of visual culture, which is essential to my role at the V&A and will be essential throughout the rest of my career,” she said.

“At a time when we are breaking down the traditional narrative of the art historical canon, greater inclusivity and diversity among museum audiences are critical to the survival of museums.” 

To inform her decisions in building this museum of the future, Haddon prioritizes experiencing works of art and spaces firsthand. “Never underestimate the power and importance of seeing and looking closely at works of art in person,” she notes.  Her work frequently takes her on the road—to New York, Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles and Miami, among others. She’s currently planning a trip to Accra to see its incredible art scene. “Much of my work at the moment is seeing as much as possible and reflecting upon what is already out there to create the changes that I want to see in the cultural sector, which will be embodied and led by V&A East,” she said.

Haddon works at both the main V&A campus in South Kensington and the new location in East London. She enjoys the eclectic nature of the job, where no two days are ever the same. “Working with the objects and artists that represent the encyclopedic breadth of the V&A’s collection means there is never a dull moment in my day,” she said. “I go from meetings about 19th-century Japanese lacquerware to ones about British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner and sculptor Thomas J. Price to ones about 15th-century Italian portrait miniatures to ones about American painter Kehinde Wiley.” Selecting artists to create site-specific works for V&A East is another especially engaging facet of her work. “I love working closely with living artists and being in dialogue with them about the museum as a blank canvas and platform for them to shape and build upon,” she said.

Haddon’s interest in curatorial work took hold during her first curatorial position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute as an undergraduate student at Yale and it remained her primary focus throughout her graduate studies at Princeton.  As an undergraduate, she also held internships at Salvatore Ferragamo and Vanity Fair, along with curatorial positions at the Frick Collection and Yale University Art Gallery.  While at Princeton, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to conduct dissertation research in Madrid at the Prado and the Reina Sofia, and she also worked at the Princeton University Art Museum. But she can trace the roots of her career path all the way back to her childhood. “My mother would say that I wanted to be a curator since I was a small child, as I was always arranging objects in order to make sense of their relationship to one another and to tell stories with them, whether they were stuffed animals or Christmas presents under the tree,” she said.

Whereas her career goals were established and clear, Haddon never expected to work outside of the United States. “I would encourage any student to take advantage of the opportunities you have to go abroad because you never know where they will lead you,” she said. “I studied abroad in Seville during my junior year in college and, because of that, I specialized in art of the Hispanic world—without that experience I would not have ended up where I am today.”

Before joining V&A East, Haddon was the first Black curator at the Hispanic Society of America, where she organized the exhibition Nuestra Casa: Rediscovering Treasures of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, which was featured on CBS News and earned praise from the New York Times. She also worked on Matisse: The Red Studio at the Museum of Modern Art, which also received critical praise from the New York Times, New Yorker Magazine and many other major news outlets.

In parallel with her work at the V&A, Haddon currently serves on the advisory committee for the Met’s upcoming show Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter, and recently contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue for Travel, Respond, Assemble: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Betye Saar at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Haddon credits many female mentors for shaping her career, several of whom she encountered at Princeton. “I am so lucky and grateful to have had Bridget Alsdorf as my dissertation adviser, whose career and work are a model for every aspiring art historian, most especially for the time that she dedicates to her students,” she said. “She was by my side every step of the way, from coursework to my proposal, to teach me, challenge me and inspire me, and still continues to do so today.”  She also received exceptional support from Rachael DeLue and Anna Arabindan-Kesson, who served on her dissertation committee, and from Basile Baudez, “whose generosity of spirit and time knows no bounds.”

“In addition to the incredible Princeton faculty, it was a privilege to study among the next generation of art historians, many of whom have become lifelong friends and to all of whom I am so grateful for their compassion and inspiring brilliance.”

To the current generation of A&A graduate students, Haddon offers the following advice, “Cherish this unique time in your life to think, write, and develop your own voice. But don’t forget that you’ll always remember the days during which you had transformative experiences with people passionate about the things you love and with art more than you will remember a chapter in any book.”

And to undergraduates considering concentrating in A&A, she says: “Do it. Reflecting on and discussing artworks and objects from the past is critical to shaping our future, and to create the change you want to see in our culture you have to start with these conversations.”