Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Visit to the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre
I don’t normally join the tours that the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) runs for its members as they are expensive, hard to get tickets for, and tend to take place on weekdays when I’m usually working. I think they are mainly aimed at non-working ladies of a certain age who lunch. But a while back I spotted that they were running a short visit to The Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, which is where the V&A textiles collection is now located.
I’m not likely to get to see this facility without going on a tour, as members of the public can now only visit by appointment to view specified items, which are then brought out of storage in advance of the visit. You can’t just wander in and ask to look at quilts. So I telephoned the Membership Department (another block to the 21stC tour-goer is that you can’t book online and can only call during opening hours) and managed to secure a £15 ticket for a one-hour tour on one of my days off.
The tour was marshalled by Elizabeth, a friendly volunteer, who took our group inside the rather prison-like Blythe House in Olympia in west London. The building was constructed at the turn of the last century as an immense headquarters for the Post Office Bank.
Elizabeth handed us over to the Clothworkers’ Centre manager, Suzanne Smith, who was very welcoming and informative. Suzanne told us that Blythe House had been used as additional storage for many years by the V&A, the British Museum and the Science Museum, before the decision had been taken to also relocate the textile collection here. The Clothworker's Centre is mainly on the third floor but the conservation labs, which we also visited, are on the fourth floor. The name derives from the facility's main sponsor, The Clothworkers' Foundation..
Most of the building décor is very institutional and late-Victorian, walls covered in sanitary tiles, imposing staircases, lots of ductwork and pipes running along the ceiling. Suzanne said the building has been used for film location shooting for films such as 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'.
Suzanne said they have about 100,000 items in the collection, with about 50,000 of those stored in one immensely long modernised room which she took us into. The collection holds everything from tiny hat pins, through designer clothes, to ancient carpets. Most of the room is lined with gigantic mobile storage units, the kind that you crank to move sideways on runners when you want to get into a unit. The units contain drawers of various sizes underneath, with hanging space above. There are also gigantic wire frames on runners on which many framed needleworks were hung. Suzanne told us that the quilts are also stored in this room, either in drawers or on rolls, but we didn’t see any. The knitting must be here somewhere as well.
At one end of the long room is a large, airy open space with several tables. This is the study room where you can view items by appointment, supervised by an Assistant Curator. Suzanne said that they get the items out for all the week’s appointments at once, and use the opportunity to further document or photograph the items if their records aren’t complete.
She had some items waiting to show us, including a rather macabre monkey’s fur capelet c1930 and a ethereal swansdown stole, which were both nestled in Tuvek protective bags. On another table, two exquisitely embroidered 18thC waistcoats were waiting underneath protective tissue paper for a PhD student who is writing a thesis on embroidery.
Also in this room is one remaining example of the old display cabinets that I remember from the Textiles rooms when they in the main V&A museum, the ones with pullout vertical frames where you could see examples of knitting, smocking, tatting etc. Suzanne said all of the several thousand items were taken out of the frames and transferred into improved storage, and she showed us a huge jar of all the nails that they pulled out which were pinning the items in place inside the old frames. However, she said before the items were stored, they were all photographed and these images are now available to view in high resolution on their website. So although the items are no longer on public view, you can probably see more detail in the images anyway.
After that she showed us a couple of the mobile units, and opened a few drawers to display their contents (one drawer had a gorgeous Norman Hartnell dress ‘The Flowers of the Fields of France’ which the Queen wore on a state visit to France.) There are labels on the end of each mobile unit describing what the contents are (‘Galliano’, etc.). All the hanging clothes were protected with more Tuvek coverings.
Then we were taken upstairs to the Conservation Lab and handed over to its manager who I think was called Joanne(a). This was another large airy room, with intriguing equipment and materials laid out on pristine worktables.
We saw several pairs of shoes which were being conserved for an upcoming exhibition, two very dirty 1930s gowns which were being assessed for cleaning and repair, and an exquisite Indian embroidery which was being cleaned. Daylight lamps give plenty of light, and there is suction available for when they are using solvents. I had a brief urge to retrain as a conservator but that died down as they talked about spending hundreds of hours over a couple of years to conserve a tapestry.
Then it was over and we had to let them get back to work while we returned to the real world. An interesting and informative visit, although what we all really wanted to do was to start opening Tuvek bags with glorious abandon to see all the concealed treasures, so a bit frustrating in that sense. I do think it is regrettable that there is no facility to display a proportion of the collection for the general public, although Suzanne did point out that many textile items are on display within other galleries in the main museum, such as the British galleries. But that only represents a tiny percentage (I think she said about 1-2%) of their actual holdings. A compromise might have been to include an exhibition space at Blythe House or at the main museum, in the same way that the British Library shows off some of their treasures in a purpose-built gallery in their new building. Although Suzanne said that several of the dresses in the current Wedding Dresses exhibition come from their own collection. But I don't think there is anywhere now that you can see, for example, several quilts together, or several knitted items, or a collection of lace, with the kind of curatorial guidance that has been provided, say, in the new Furniture gallery.
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