Amongst the many exciting tasks that I have to undertake as an assistant curator in the Middle East section of the Asian Department is the responsibility of dealing with the logistics of all new acquisitions. Every year, the V&A acquires hundreds of objects from different people all over the world. Last year, amongst these acquisitions was a group of contemporary Moroccan outfits from the collections of some of Morocco’s most influential fashion designers who were active from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. These were acquired as part of our Moroccan Fashion collecting project.
As a member of the public, unless you have previously donated objects to a museum, it is easy to assume that the process of donating or selling to museums is a fast and straight forward procedure. However, there are a series of important steps that must be undertaken before objects are accepted into a museum’s permanent collection. The formal acquisition procedure enables the Museum to obtain legal title for an object. Obtaining title provides Museum staff with the possibility of using the acquired object for research, publications, national and international exhibitions, displays and many other valuable activities. Every object’s acquisition procedure is truly unique and the turnaround time for it being fully acquired could range from two weeks to over a year! I hope that this blog will give you a glimpse into some of the procedures that were involved in acquiring donations from our Moroccan donors at the V&A.
After carrying out extensive research into why an object or group of objects should be acquired by the Museum, the first step in the acquisition process is creating a workflow on the museum database called Collection Management System (CMS). This acts as a step by step guide for curators who wish to make an acquisition. Once it has been decided to acquire an object all actions taken must also be recorded and filed in a Registered File (RF). These are the physical files which provide information on how objects were acquired, their provenance history and the relationship with the donors. Registered files are so crucial to our understanding of the history of a museum object and are frequently referenced and studied by curators. All correspondence, from the moment my colleague Mariam Rosser-Owen (curator in the Middle East section) and Dr Angela Jansen, our expert consultant, decided to work together on collecting Moroccan fashion, up to the ‘Thank You’ letter that we send to our donors at the last stage of the acquisition, are filed in the object RFs.
After objects are entered onto CMS, they are issued with a temporary number. At this point it is important to try to find out about the copyright relating to an object. Careful and detailed checks need to be carried out in order to decide whether an object is in copyright and if so who the copyright holder is. This information will allow us to determine to what extent and for what purposes an object can be used in the V&A collections. Thankfully, most objects in these acquisitions were out of copyright, and for the ones that were in copyright the donors kindly transferred all rights to the V&A.
From looking at the photographs of the Moroccan outfits and hearing about them from Angela, we were pretty certain that these were examples we wished to acquire for our collections. However, we still had to see them in order to finalise our decision. As a result, we asked Angela for her assistance in arranging for us to view the objects. Once the outfits were delivered to the Museum I had to enter them into our Daybook, a book in which all objects entering the Museum must be noted, so that their whereabouts can be tracked. The outfits were stored in a quarantine area, where Albertina Cogram (Senior Textile Conservator) and I condition checked them in order to assess whether they needed any conservation work, as well as checking to see whether any hazards were present on the garments. Hazards might include physical instability or harmful and toxic components. Luckily, all outfits were in a stable condition and did not require any work. At this stage it is important to think about possible locations for the storage of objects for when they are accessioned.
The next crucial stage before an object is acquired involves a due diligence check. This is the most interesting part of an acquisition process because it involves a lot of what I call, ‘detective work’. As an acquiring curator, we are responsible for carrying out all necessary research and interviews in order to find out as much as possible about the provenance of an object and to confirm its donor as being the rightful title holder of the object. To give you an idea of what kind information we look for while investigating, here are a few examples of our diligence questions:
- Has the object been created or removed from a region affected by conflict at a time of conflict?
- Can the source provide evidence of how they obtained ownership?
- Are there any gaps in the object’s provenance from the time of creation or excavation?
The outfits were being donated to us by donors based in Morocco and France who unfortunately did not speak any English, but were fluent in French and Arabic. My rudimentary knowledge of both French and Arabic proved to be rather hopeless when it came to communicating with our donors, even with the help of my very best friend, Google translate! As a result I had to ask Angela and my colleague Rosalie Kim for assistance on a regular basis as they are both fluent French speakers. As I mentioned earlier, acquisitions of objects can take anytime between two weeks to over a year. Due to the difficultly in communication and the advanced age of some of the donors, completing the acquisition of some of these outfits took a very long time, which kept me challenged, as well as making me really appreciative of acquiring these outfits for our collection.
Once the Due Diligence checks have been cleared for all outfits and donors, the next step in the process is valuation. In order to have these outfits valued I got in touch with Dounia Safouane, a Moroccan interior designer whom I met at our ‘Style Cities: Casablanca’ study day in November 2014. Dounia was extremely helpful and put me in touch with Madame Fatem-Ezzahra El Fasi, a collector of Moroccan fashion who was able to value these outfits for us. Valuation is required in order to have the objects insured if they are sent on loan to other institutions. Any additional cost that the museum might incur as a result of acquiring an object should also be considered carefully: these can include costs of shipping, conservation and mounting if necessary.
Once this step has been reached and the acquiring curator has carried out all the necessary checks and gathered all the information required, an acquisition justification is written. The justification is then submitted to the head of the department who will meet with other curators in order to decide whether the proposed objects would fit within our collection and decide if they should be acquired. Thankfully, Mariam’s justifications for these acquisitions were happily received and as a result I was able to proceed with the remaining steps, thus enabling me to fully acquire these garments. Deed of Gifts and Copyright Agreement forms were drafted and posted to our donors in Quillan, France and Casablanca, Morocco. Once these were received and counter-signed, copies of the Deed of Gift form and Thank You letters were then sent out to the donors in order to show our appreciation of their generous support to the V&A and our collecting initiative.
Now, the fun part of an acquisition begins once the administration side is completed, which in this case really did take just over a year. After designating a permanent museum number for the newly acquired objects, I had to pack and freeze every outfit, a procedure which is carried out for almost all textile objects that we wish to acquire. Freezing the objects kills any pests that might be living on the outfits. After freezing the objects for 48 hours, they were unwrapped and labelled with their permanent museum numbers.
The next stages included photography and finding them a permanent storage area. Having the objects mounted for photography was fascinating. In order to find out exactly how some of the outfits were worn, especially the ones with accessories such as belts, I once again contacted Dounia Safouane who very kindly provided instructions to myself and Lara Flecker (Senior Costume Mounting Specialist). Lara did an incredible job mounting the garments and padding the mannequins, a process that really brought these outfits to life. The images below were taken by me with my iPhone and Richard Davis (Head of Photo Studio) with his incredible, professional camera and high-tech equipment. They show you the before and after photographs of some of the objects, which as you can see were transformed once they were on a mannequin and professionally photographed. Unfortunately, some of the outfits are still awaiting photography. I will keep you posted with more photographs once these have been done.
The above photographs are examples of some of our latest acquisitions of Contemporary Moroccan Fashion.
I hope this summary of the main tasks I had to carry out in order to acquire these wonderful objects has given you an insight into at least some of the work involved in making acquisitions.
All of our Moroccan outfits are currently housed in our Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion at Blythe House. Get in touch with us to book an appointment and view these fabulous garments and also, please let us know if you have any contemporary Moroccan fashion garments or accessories in your closets that you wish to share with us!