The V&A textile study room and galleries will close March 1, 2011 at the South Kensington museum. Packing of the collections begins today. This action is in preparation for the new ‘Clothworker’s Centre for Textiles and Fashion Study and Conservation’, to be opened at the V&A’s Blythe House, Kensington Olympia facility in 2013. The new center will consolidate existing textile and fashion collections, provide advanced storage and conservation facilities, a new study center and seminar room. Further information can be found at http://www.vam.ac.uk/futureplan/projects/Textile%20Study%20Centre/index.html.
The V&A has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, where some of the exhibits were purchased to form the nucleus of a new museum. Originally named The Museum of Manufacturers, the name was changed to the South Kensington Museum in 1854. The name changed again to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899. Some of the lace collection appears to have been acquired from the decorative arts collection of the Government School of Design. Founded in 1837, this institution became part of the museum in 1853 (it is now known as the Royal College of Art). Hence one sometimes finds acquisition dates for laces earlier than the founding of the V&A.
A number of famous authors have been associated with the museum. As well producing as her seminal work “The History of Lace” Mrs. Bury Palliser was an important donor to the lace collection. She produced a very early partial catalog in her little known “Notes on the History of Lace to which is added A Catalog of Specimens of Lace selected from The Museum at South Kensington, contributed as a loan to the Midland Counties Museum of Science and Art, Nottingham” (1872). Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934) was the son of the museum’s first director, Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), and also served as Assistant Secretary at the museum. He published “A Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection of Lace in the South Kensington Museum” in 1881, and in 1891 produced a supplement for specimens of lace acquired between 1880 and 1890. He was commissioned by Parliament to investigate the Irish lacemaking industry, and wrote many important works on the subject and on lace in general. Cole knew many turn of the century Arts & Crafts leaders, and was one of the only people advocating lace in the movement.
More recently, Patricia Wardle was the museum’s lace specialist, publishing her classic work, “Victorian Lace” in 1969. Former Keeper of the Department of Textiles and Dress Santina Levey produced her outstanding book “Lace, A History” in 1983. The latest work is by curator Clare Browne, who published “Lace from the Victoria and Albert Museum” in 2004. One hundred of the collection’s most important pieces were selected for illustration, including several pieces given more recently by noted collector Margaret Simeon.
A visitor to textile study room 100 steps back in time to an era of dark oak cabinets containing hundreds of magnificent small laces and other textiles captured between glass panes (often folded with sharp creases to fit the format). One full cabinet is devoted to lace. You pull out a pane, then take it to a desk for study. Sometimes there’s a note saying that a piece has been ‘removed for conservation’ – I’ve seen these same notes for 30 years. Then there are the magnificent large laces mounted on the walls and in vitrines – a stunning sight.
As one can see from the above photo, the study center is a curious combination of modern desks, nicely framed textiles, the old oak cabinets, 19th century decor, and fluorescent lighting. It isn’t known if the oak display panes will survive, or what form the new facility will take. But no one can object to the safeguarding of one of the world’s greatest lace collections.