Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In the Archives

I have had a few requests for posts about my time in the archives. So here we are! The Victoria and Albert Archives, at Blythe House in Kensington. They actually hold a number of different collections, but the section I was interested in here, were the institutional archives of the museum from the time it was known as the South Kensington Museum (1852-1899). At this time the museum had an important educational role and its associated school provided training for teachers and designers.

I find visiting archives is always a bit odd. Every place has their own slightly different set of rules (no water, no pens, no bags, etc), and their own method of assisting researchers access the collection. I always feel like the first day or two at a new archive is a period of learning a new "archive speak".

The V&A archives were particularly odd when you first arrive. I have never been to an archive with such intense security! You get buzzed in and checked off, then buzzed through a series of doors and corridors before finally getting to the reading room. I think it is the space where a lot of conservation takes place, so they have objects that need to be kept secure. The building is a little strange too - like an old American high school with great wide corridors, but with all the added security measures it feels a little like a mental asylum (which is, perhaps, quite fitting?)

The actual material I found was incredible. I spent several days sifting through folders of correspondence from 1875-1881, between Australia and South Kensington. Most of this related to the international exhibitions that were held in Sydney (1879) and Melbourne (1880). It was mostly logistical organising, but gave great insight into the way a great big international event was organised before the world of rapid communication. Being a colony, they also needed officials from England to act on their behalf. So not only were they trying to organise a conference, with contributors from all over the world via snail mail, but they needed to appeal to the folks in London at every step along the way! Kind of mind boggling in these days of the inter-web! I also found some very exciting material about one of the Sydney Superintendents for Drawing: F. W. Woodhouse.

I fell a little bit in love with the "red-pen man", an archivist probably back from the turn of the century who annotated and summarised many of the documents. By my 3pm lull each day I found myself skipping to his summaries to see whether it was worth struggling through a letter or note in messy handwriting. He (and yes I am assuming it was a man...) was even so kind as to decipher difficult signatures - check out the letter below - such a champion!

The archivists at the V&A were completely amazing. I ask a bazillion questions, and requests stacks of material, often discovering it isn't what I hoped it would be, and send it back, so I think I could get rather annoying. But these guys were super patient. One gentleman in particular (whose name I have forgotten!) was beyond amazing, even finding references for me at other archives!

Now I know many of you will skip this post and come back when I have more pretty pictures - but I want to do a few more like this for those who are interested. If you have any questions, or want me to focus on anything in particular, please let me know. I am no great expert, but can tell you  as much as I know!


  1. Eeee! This is so cool! I'm an archivist so possibly biased :D
    I would LOVE to visit the V&A archive, it must be incredible.
    Are you writing a thesis?
    Thanks for posting about this! Style blogs and archives, together at last!

  2. It reminds me of the archive we had at my university! so nice


Go on then!