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V&A/RIBA partnership

Lisa Nash
RIBA, Special Collections Conservator

Anne Greig
RIBA, NMCT Project Conservator

The British Architectural Library was established in 1834 as the Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects. This resource, which includes all aspects of architecture, is the largest and most comprehensive in Britain and is used both for research and information. From November 2004 the RIBA Drawings, Archive and Manuscripts Collection have relocated from 21 Portman Square and 66 Portland Place in London, to be re-housed at the V&A on Levels 3-5 of the Henry Cole Wing. The Architects Wright & Wright were appointed to design the scheme, partly funded by an award from the HLF, to re-house the two RIBA collections within the existing V&A Print Room space. Office space for the RIBA staff was also designed together with a new user friendly space for both the V&A/RIBA study rooms, which includes a shared group teaching room (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: RIBA Architecture Drawings Study Room. Photography by Catriona Cornelius, Curatorial Assistant, RIBA (click image for larger version)

The Drawings Collection is the principle British repository for architectural drawings, consisting of work of the major British architects from the 15th century to the present. Amongst others, Sir Christopher Wren, Inigo Jones, J.B. Papworth, Pugin, Voysey, Scott and Waterhouse families and Lord Norman Foster.

The 600,000 drawings also include important foreign groups, including the majority of the surviving Palladio drawings and drawings by Royal Gold Medallists that include Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe.

The Manuscript and Archive collection, of over 750,000 objects, includes papers by British architects from the 17th century to the present. Document types include letters, diaries, project correspondence and building accounts.

The Photographic Collection has remained located at RIBA Headquarters, 66 Portland Place, housed in a climate controlled store. The collection comprises over 1.3 million images, in varied formats, of world wide architecture dating from the 1850s, including complete archives of major British architectural photographers. In addition to paper based objects, the RIBA's Special Collections also include many other objects associated with architecture. The range incorporates over 300 models, drawing instruments, medals and office furniture either designed or used by architects. All of the collections provide a rich resource used by historians and students as well as those engaged in the conservation and restoration of historic buildings.

Two conservators are employed by RIBA, both located at the V&A within the Paper, Books and Paintings Section. Since 2001, the RIBA full time conservator has been responsible for the collection care and conservation programme for all three Special Collections. This includes the conservation of all RIBA objects for the V&A/RIBA Architecture and Temporary Gallery and the preparation for all external loans.

The RIBA also has a National Manuscript Conservation Trust funded conservation post for the duration of a year. The project relates to the Dove Brothers collection, a North London building firm based in Islington from 1781 to 1993. The collection contains all building types as the Dove Brothers worked with most of the major architects of the late 19th to 20th century.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Corian drawer. Drawing RIBA Ref. PA1263/2 (16) Design for the Glass Retention System, Willis Faber & Dumas Building by Foster Associates 1973. Pen and Transfer. Letratone. Lent by Foster Associates. Photography by Lisa Nash (click image for larger version)

There are many problems, some unique, associated with the conservation and preservation of architectural drawings. For example, their scale makes them very vulnerable to physical damage and the heavy use of inferior quality or translucent papers can cause them to become extremely fragile and difficult to store. The introduction of differing processes, which may include modern methods such as electronic formats, often need re-formatting due to technology changes and the possibility of obsolete formats. Architects' use of photomechanical processes, first introduced in the form of a blueprint in 1842, poses many problems as differences in the manufacture of certain drawings ensure they cannot be safely stored together. The varying residual odours and chemical nature of production means they can be harmful to other drawings and with time may cause irreversible changes to either the media or the papers structure.

The gallery collaboration between the V&A/RIBA is the first in the country to be dedicated solely to the promotion of architecture. In the gallery's permanent display the paper based objects are presented within Corian‚ drawers. The drawers allow the object to be viewed only when required by the visitor. The use of this system limits the amount of light exposure, allowing a longer rotation programme. The drawings are placed under glass, float mounted using masumi usimono Japanese hinges fixed onto a Zerkall‚ mouldmade calcium carbonate buffered paper. The float mounted drawings are set on a 4mm thick layer of Plastazote‚ (a cross-linked polyethylene foam) which acts as a buffer from the base of the drawer whilst also providing a non-slip surface on which the drawings can rest (Figure 2).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Temporary gallery display, Inside Out Exhibition, 2 March to 5 June 2005, Photography by Lisa Nash (click image for larger version)

The Temporary Gallery has a changing programme of displays which totals three exhibitions per year. Objects are either displayed in window mounts or float mounted using either magnetic tape or magnets for easy attachment to the metal wall of the main display case. The magnets are supplied by Goudsmit Magnetic, this method of display first being applied in the Netherlands Architecture Institute. This type of display was chosen as it works well with all architectural drawing medium, being highly flexible and adaptable. It allows both presentation and working drawings to be sympathetically displayed close to the nature of their first intended use, highlighting the early stages of ideas and development to the final stages of design (Figure 3).Working within the Paper, Books and Paintings Conservation Studio has allowed RIBA conservators the access to expertise, support and the use of facilities available throughout the Conservation Departments in the V&A. The extensive size and the varied nature of the RIBA's collection has made this opportunity invaluable.

Although the RIBA retains the ownership of its own collection, the partnership of the V&A/RIBA will form a comprehensive resource for the study of architecture, uniting collections of the V&A's 35,000 drawings, 600,000 RIBA drawings and the RIBA Archive, for the first time, within the one building.


We are grateful and would like to thank both Pauline Webber, Head of Paper, Books & Paintings Conservation, and Jane Rutherston, Head Book Conservator, for their help, continual support and accepting us warmly into their studios.


Zerkall Mould Made Acid Free Paper 350gsm, John Purcell Paper, 15 Rumsey Road, London SW9 OTR
e-mail jpp@johnpurcell.net

Plastazote®, Polyformes Ltd, Cherry Court Way, Stanbridge Road, Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire