Farewell the the V and A Textile Study Galleries

Although it is not always evident to the casual visitor, museums are in a constant state of flux, with legions of people behind the scenes working to improve access, display and conservation of their collections.  Technology and innovation in exhibition display and design and digital technologies become ever apparent in the way we experience information in and about museums.

As a curator and dress historian I celebrate and seek to participate in these activities.  However, the fact that in order to evolve, galleries must close, causes me some sadness and distress.  This sentiment is the result partially of a personal affinity and interest in “the way things were,” which extends not only to museum artefacts, but also the display cases, labels and arrangements in which they are situated.  Thus, with a digital camera, and a somewhat heavy heart, I set out to the Victoria & Albert Museum this weekend to bid farewell to Rooms 95 through 100, the Textile Study Galleries.

Overview of Textile Study Gallery, Room 100

The rooms, which currently house thousands of textile swatches encased in Victorian era display frames, are already in the process of being disassembled, and will close to the public on March 1, 2011.  This closure is part of  preparations for the new Clothworkers’ Centre for Textiles and Fashion Study and Conservation, which will open in 2013 at Blythe House, the V&A Museum’s offsite storage and research facility.  The new textiles facility promises to be a state of the art conservation and research studio, with private and public study and seminar rooms.  Blythe House is a resplendent historic building, also undergoing some renovation to make it accessible to the public.  All in all, The Clothworkers Centre will be a highly anticipated and valuable resource for all those interested in fashion and textile design and history. But before looking positively ahead, I wanted to take the time to look nostalgically back, at the present textile study room, and give an idea of what it is like to peruse the textile frames in a rather forgotten and lonely corner of the V&A.

The astonishing part of visiting these galleries for a modern visitor is that you are allowed to touch, and indeed must use quite a large degree of effort to slide out and view the wood and glass frames from their shelving units. The frames are heavy, unwieldly, somewhat battered and possess the scent of old wood and paper. Most of the labels are typewritten – on a typewriter – faded and have occasional typographical errors.  Many of the frames are missing handles, and I even suffered a few splinters in my nearly compulsive need to view as many of them as possible.

The bays of shelving units are arranged by type of textile – printed, woven, embroidered, laces; by date and geographical location.  By committing to a sore arm and visual overload, one can see textiles spanning the globe over thousands of years. I wanted to highlight a few of those that most delighted and surprised me, and also some familiar favourites that will be off public view for the next few years.  Although photography was permitted, I am including images from the V&A’s wonderful online collections database, to provide better quality images than my pocket camera was able to take in the low lighting.  My pictures of the display cases and gallery views hopefully serve to give an idea of the feel of the space, without the risk of splinters!

”]Jane Bostock Sampler, 1598, linen embroidered with sil and metal thread. ‘This is the earliest dated British sampler to have survived, and its inscription commemorates the birth of a child, Alice Lee, two years earlier.’ (V&A catalogue information).

”]Textile fragment with crowned lions within a network of swooping half-palmettes, in red, blue and yellow.

”]Block-printed silk furnishing fabric with yellow flowers against scrolling green foliage on a blue ground. Designed by Silver Studio for Liberty and Co. London.

”]The painter Vanessa Bell designed this fabric for the Omega Workshops. Founded in 1913, the Workshops produced a range of furniture and furnishings, including six textiles. Members of the Workshop and the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists also used the textiles for clothing. The Workshop designs show the influence of contemporary painting, in particular the shapes and colours of Fauvism and Cubism.

Finally, here is the most extraordinary and touching piece of fabric I have ever come to know, Elizabeth Parker’s confessional sampler from 1830. The photo here will do it no justice, so follow the link, where you can view detail images and also read the full text of this 19th century diaristic embroidery. Makes you think of how easy we have it to be able to express ourselves on blogs!


Just when I was about to leave (the final closing museum bell was ringing) I decided to look at just one more frame, the very first one in the very first aisle of printed textiles.  Located in the darkest and most hidden corner of the room, Frame 1, holds ancient Egyptian painted textile fragments.  Carrying this frame over to a study desk, I broke out in a sweat. What if I were to drop the frame, shatter the glass and forever ruin these priceless artefacts? I handle museum items on a regular basis, but this was just too much for me.  The twelve feet between the shelf and the desk seemed miles, and in the time it took me to walk, I foresaw the end of my curatorial career, and incarceration for destruction of museum property materialise.  Luckily, I managed to set the frame down gingerly and sat face to face with…..until the gallery guards came to usher me away.

Ancient Egyptian textiles on the viewing stand

My heart still racing, and palms sweating, I came to accept that it will be a good thing to leave the cumbersome frames behind, and forego the risk of damage by well meaning but potentially clumsy researchers such as myself in favour of new, user-friendly storage and display methods for one of the world’s most impressive and comprehensive collections of textiles.  Having had a thrilling final encounter with the V&A’s Textile Study Room 100, I look forward eagerly to the opening of the Clothworkers Centre, a seeming eternity from now, in 2013.

In the meantime, do visit the V&A’s online collections search page, where you can browse, view and download high-resolution textile images and learn about their history and provenance.  You can even download PDFs of all the catalogue information for some items.

Also take a look at their marvellous textile-related publications, and their new and expanding series of thematic pocket-sized textile sourcebooks, that come with a disc of images you can use to create and inspire.

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  • Claudine February 17, 2011 08.49 am

    I cannot express how sad I am about this. When I lived in London, I would go to the V&A as often as possible to look at the textiles. One of the things I liked best about the textile study rooms is that they were always so quiet. A state-of-the-art textile study center sounds, well, noisy.

    I did a post about the Asian embroideries on my blog here:

  • Lauren Michel February 17, 2011 01.38 pm

    Although I look forward to seeing the new centre at Blythe House, oh, how I will miss the textile study galleries. They seemed to me one of the most magical of the host of delights housed within the V and A. Thank you for capturing one last look at them, Jenna.

  • Staffordcastle February 17, 2011 07.00 pm

    Thanks for this; it has been many years since I was able to get to the Textile Rooms. It is so sad that they are closing! I am sure that the new textile center will be marvelous, but I hope there will still be a few textiles at the main V&A facility; it would be dreadful if that whole ancient branch of technology was not represented.


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