What really happened when the V&A Museum refused Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe?

My last post coincided with the sudden but intriguing news that the V&A Museum had declined an offer to receive Margaret Thatcher’s sartorial archive.  It was an interesting story and given what came to light, I am quite glad I waited to share this with you.

The Daily Telegraph, who broke the initial story on 2nd November, claimed that the V&A had refused the offer from the Thatcher family of 300+ items, quoting a spokesperson from the museum who said “The V&A politely declined the offer of Baroness Thatcher’s clothes, feeling that these records of Britain’s political history were best suited to another collection which would focus on their intrinsic social historical value…The Museum is responsible for chronicling fashionable dress and its collecting policy tends to focus on acquiring examples of outstanding aesthetic or technical quality.”

Photograph: PA (Taken from The Guardian website)

This article, written by Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, was then cited in a story published by The Guardian in the early hours of 3rd November and this time written by Ben Quinn. Again, the text suggested that the V&A had directly refused the offer and commented upon why such they had made such a decision.

Photograph: Frank Baron/The Guardian

In response, Jess Cartner-Morley, fashion editor for The Guardian, wrote a small piece that day supporting the V&A’s decision not to accept the donation, given that Thatcher was neither interested in high fashion nor coveted as a style icon.

Thatcher trying on several hats in her home in 1971 Photograph: Selwyn Tait/ Selwyn Tait/CORBIS SYGMA

However, by the end of the same day, the Daily Telegraph followed up their initial story with another one suggesting that the V&A Museum were now reconsidering their decision in light of criticism from several Conservative Cabinet ministers.   Reference was also made to fashion figures such as Vivienne Westwood who suggested that the V&A should display her clothes,  if only to publicise her as an interesting tastemaker within the context of political dress.

Reading the story further, however, reveals an oddity that had not as yet been discussed or revealed.  A V&A spokesperson was cited again but this time they were quoted as saying “We were asked a question yesterday about an informal discussion that happened several years ago and responded accordingly. No formal offer of this collection has yet been made to, or considered by, the museum, and so it has never been discussed at a senior level or with trustees…The V&A is a constantly evolving institution, and if we were approached today it is perfectly possible that discussions might develop in a different direction, and we welcome public interest and debate in how we collect and how we research and display our collections to the widest audience.” 

Thatcher showing support for a united Europe in 1975 Photograph: Associated Press

Reading this, one might assume that the V&A had never received an offer of Thatcher’s wardrobe despite what had been written so far.  Yet, by the next day, 4th November, The Daily Telegraph had noted that “Nicholas Coleridge, the V&A’s chairman, and Martin Roth, its director, were said by sources to be “actively working on a solution” with Mark and Carol Thatcher, Lady Thatcher’s surviving children on Wednesday.” In addition to this, £100,000 had been pledged to The Margaret Thatcher Centre in a bid to save the collection.

Finally, on 5th November, the BBC reported that the V&A had never received an offer so had never turned anything down.  This report described how Nicolas Coleridge had revealed to BBC Radio 4’s World at One that there had been “no letter, no meeting, no judgement… no overture of any kind… and no turning down of her clothes at all”. Not only did the report state that Carol Thatcher had called the museum to apologise about the Daily Telegraph’s story but also that the V&A would definitely consider acquiring some of Thatcher’s pieces because, as Coleridge said “Lady Thatcher was an iconic figure who used fashion as a political weapon and certainly knew the power of clothes…It seems to me rather appropriate that one or two of those power dresses and Thatcher handbags should be there alongside Elizabeth the first’s clothes and Charles the first’s execution shirt”.

Thatcher wearing a pink raincoat by Aquascutum while on a visit to British Forces at a NATO training ground in Germany (The Daily Telegraph)

What’s interesting about this story is the motivation behind the flurry of coverage about an apparent ‘rejection’ of an offer to a national museum.  I can’t help but wonder if it was a clever ploy by The Margaret Thatcher Centre via The Daily Telegraph to direct funds so they might bid for the collection when it is auctioned at Christies in December. However, since the BBC’s revelation that the V&A received no official offer of Thatcher’s personal archive, the newspaper has been noticeably quiet.  Meanwhile, The Margaret Thatcher Centre is going full steam ahead with its efforts to keep the archive together and ensure it remains in Britain via their proposed Exhibit Rooms.

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