In October 2013, the V&A Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion in London opened and so it was nice to mark their one year anniversary with my first visit last month. Due to the Centre only being available via advance appointment or a tour once a month on a Friday morning, it has been impossible for me to get there and I do wonder how anyone who works full-time and/or has an interest in or teaches textiles and fashion study is able to access this fantastic resource. Therefore, I was very excited when I found out that the Centre had teamed up with Open House London to allow several tours to take place on a Saturday in September. Finally, I could get a chance to see the Centre and find out more about what it has to offer as a study resource.
It was a rainy Saturday morning when I arrived at Blythe House in Olympia, the home for the Centre as well as other collections belonging to the V&A’s Archive of Art and Design, the British Museum and the Science Museum. As part of the Centre’s design, it was decided to reopen Blythe House’s original public entrance to what was once the largest Post Office Savings Bank in the country. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, Blythe House served as its headquarters until the 1960s when it relocated to Glasgow. It is a huge, rather grand but formal, building that once was packed with thousands of employees, both men and women, looking after ordinary people’s savings. Walking in, I felt very much like this place had been both factory and civil institution.
The Centre was designed by Haworth Tompkins Architects and to some extent, it is an essay on intervention given that Blythe House is a Grade II listed Edwardian building and so cannot be drastically changed or rebuilt. For example, the reception area has been created by installing a large display case that will contain a rolling exhibition of the V&A’s study collection. The first display is Eduardo Paolozzi’s Krazy Kat Arkive of Twentieth Century Popular Culture, which includes toys, figurines as well as some of his own work.
The redesigned conservation studios have been installed so as to maximise natural light while allowing enough access for the transportation of objects to and from storage. On our tour, we were able to glimpse through the windows and although there were no conservators there that day, a few had kindly left out a few examples for us to have a look at.
With the Centre itself, one of the main issues for the architects was being able to spread the weight of a collection of textiles and fashion evenly across a space the size of a football pitch without altering the ground or the supporting columns. As a result, a huge raised floor was installed as well as limitations on the weight of the collection at any one time. According to one review, every item had to be weighed before it could enter the building. This must have been a considerable task, given that the V&A’s textile and fashion collection includes approximately 104,000 objects that span more than 5000 years.
The main study area is beautiful in an understated way, with functionality at the heart of the architectural interruptions to the existing building. Tables are on wheels to allow visitors to move around objects, lights are retractable to allow for close ups or to reduce potential damage and there is even a mirror and a magnet board in the area designated for large study groups. It was nice to see one of the original wooden display cabinets for textiles from the V&A’s former Textile Galleries had been included , a reminder that these have been closed since 2011 and that to have access to the collection now was no mean feat on the part of the V&A and the architects.
As part of the tour, we were shown a few highlights from the collection, which included an evening dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by Queen Elizabeth for a state visit to Paris in 1957. I had previously seen this dress on a display mannequin at The Golden Age of Couture. Paris and London 1947 – 1957 exhibition in 2007 but to see it so close up, laid flat on conservation tissue paper, was a special moment. Not only was it a delight to see the diplomatically inspired embroidery of French field flowers and Napoleonic bees again but the evidence of being worn was also more apparent and somehow more poignant. I could immediately imagine Elizabeth wearing this garment and all that might have happened, seeing it laid out in all its years of existence than I could have when posed on a mannequin in a state of presentation that was never its original destiny.
The main aim of the Centre is to provide more access within a suitable setting for conservation and study. My understanding is that it was the V&A’s response to long waiting times for people to see the collection up close. I think the Centre is a critical resource and am glad that it is now in a dedicated space. However, I still think access is an issue. It is definitely not possible to visit the Centre spontaneously as it requires you to book in advance and give a reason for your visit. You are also required to provide photo identification on arrival and so you do need to be prepared in advance.
Although this may be apparent for those of us who are researchers and curators, I do wonder whether how inclusive this is of teachers and lecturers in the field. For example, the study group room can only take up to 18 people and is available only for five and a half hours a day, four days a week. Having just begun the academic year again, I am very aware that I am very aware that my classes never seem to be less than 25 students and we may meet on a day when either the Centre is closed or the hours are not suitable. I think this is a missed opportunity because students would benefit greatly from the opportunity to see such amazing primary sources in a setting that is very different from that of the curated exhibition display. It would also provide me, as the teacher, with a new physical context within which to guide student’s learning.
The more convenient it is for young people to see what the V&A has to offer, the better it will be for both us and them. Yesterday, one of my fashion students asked me if the objects I had showed them from the V&A’s online collection were replicas. This was a great question and enabled us to consider the origins of museum collections, the ethics of conservation and the availability of artefacts for further study. I was reminded how unfamiliar students are now with museums and their collections. My final thought as I left the elegant Centre and the rather formidable façade of Blythe House was that archives need to be used, ideally by those who will remember them, if they are to survive in the future.
,  http://www.kcwtoday.co.uk/education/c5q6xee5a8.html [Accessed 6/10/14)
 http://historyfashionculture.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/designing-a-design-archive/ (Accessed 6/10/14)