At the Museum

My second site for this practice-based research is the South Asian Collection at the V&A, particularly the textiles collection. Buildings tell their own stories just as textiles do and the V&A and its South Asian textiles are no exception, being vivid, poignant utterances of a huge, complex and often bitter history – the history of Britainâ??s imperial past in India. How does the museum present or â??frameâ?? its collection? Frames instruct us, or try to, as to how to perceive the thing which is framed. The shop windows in Green Street are also contemporary â??framesâ??.

But where do you start? The V&A building is itself a huge frame for the treasures within. We could say also that the area of London in which it stands also ‘frames’ the museum itself. Just up Exhibition Road is the Albert Memorial, built to commemorate the Prince Consort, with â??Asiaâ?? in one corner portrayed like this.

Albert memorial, 'Asia'

The main entrance to the museum, cathedral-like, gives us Albert again.

V&A, Main Entrance

Or we pass through other doors marked with the signs of royalty. Knowledge and power go together … yet that is too simple. Inside the theme continues, in these wall tiles, for example.

V&A Heraldic interior tilework

When we come to the Nehru gallery of â??Indianâ?? art, we are met by a plan of its lay-out. The plan is interesting, in the form of a niche in a mosque, and also reminiscent of a page from Owen Jonesâ??s great work, The Grammar of Ornament. Everything is everything clear, separated.

V&A, Nehru Gallery Plan

When we arrive in the gallery there it all is, in spot lit cases, as museum displays often are, theatrical.

V&A display, Nehru Gallery   V&A, Nehru Gallery, South Asian clothing,

How far it seems from bustling Green Street (where the shop displays stage their own intense theatrics, however) or from the often harsh sites of South Asian textile production. The â??knowledgeâ?? which the museum provides, often information in the form of dates, places, categories of craft, seems highly controlled. Yet it leads straight back and out to those other heaving places, those other uncontrollable, entangled histories. There are many more items in the collection than can be displayed. The way they are stored has its own fascination. Here are some images from behind the scenes.

V&A textile archive, small rolled samples   V&A South Asian Collection, museum storage

These drawers, cupboards and safe-like rolling units speak of the patient work of classifying, labelling, the need to be able to retrieve items, care in preservation. The labels on the items, often themselves old and fragile, also seem eloquent of another time.

V&A textile archive, storage   Museum textile storage bag, V&A

It’s in this work of identification, preservation, dissemination, that one sees the passion and love on the part of successive generations of museum officers for the objects in the museum’s care. This makes visiting this place, with its imperial past, a very complex experience. Once again I found myself pondering how to respond as an artist to what feels like a mighty, too-great weight in this site of collection and learning. How can any artist frame a response to this complexity, this weight? I felt it could only be through the forming of visual remarks which were very light and yet also evocative â?? but what a challenge. In my next post I hope to share some of the struggles to rise to this challenge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *