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Collecting the Twentieth Century

Collecting the Twentieth Century

Christopher Wilk

The story of the V&A’s collecting of twentieth-century material and contemporary objects is largely an episodic one, undirected by museum-wide policies until quite recently.1 It begins with the important gift of objects made for the Paris exhibition of 1900 but, with rare exceptions in a few departments, the Museum largely kept objects made during the twentieth century at arm’s length until the late 1960s. The Circulation Department, established to generate exhibitions that could travel throughout Britain, then began collecting a much wider range of contemporary objects, in some cases with the encouragement of director John Pope-Hennessy (1967–74). During the directorship of Roy Strong (1974–87), the curatorial departments of the Museum actively began to collect twentieth- century objects, although the main impetus for this on a Museum-wide basis was, ironically, the 1977 closing of the Circulation Department, at which point its objects were dispersed throughout the V&A’s respective materials-based departments. While the refusal to engage with design of the present might seem to conflict with the Museum’s founding principles, it was hardly exceptional, since few institutions then actively collected recent design.2

Ironically, it was a traditional Bond Street antique dealer, George Donaldson, who was responsible for the Museum’s first and, in many ways, most exciting purchase of contemporary decorative arts in this century (cats. 164–165). His gift of thirty-eight pieces of Art Nouveau furniture (and one ceramic object) personally selected from exhibits at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 was welcomed by the Museum. By the time the collection was shown at the V&A in 1901, however, it was the subject of venomous attack. Despite support and interest from some in the art press, British architects in particular fulminated in the pages of The Times, the British Architect, and the Architectural Review. Significantly, the purchase was vehemently attacked by the Council of the Royal College of Art, and it was this criticism—from an influential body closely allied to the Museum by history and by virtue of the structure of government administration—that was particularly damaging. Despite great demand that the Donaldson collection travel to art schools, the Council’s criticism resulted, initially, in a warning that students viewing the collection should consult their instructors before forming an opinion of it, and, in 1909, in the transfer of the collection from South Kensington to the Bethnal Green branch of the Museum in East London.

The furor over the Donaldson collection had a profound impact on future Museum policy. Not only was the controversy public in nature but also, and even more significantly, it coincided with the deliberations about the nature of the Museum’s collection and its redisplay. This culminated in the 1908 Report of the Committee on Re-arrangement, in which the case against collecting design of the previous half-century was set out under the heading of “Acquisition of Modern Specimens”:

It may occasionally happen that manufactured objects of say less than 50 years old may convey valuable artistic lessons . . . and it would be impolitic to exclude altogether such objects from the scope of the Museum. On the other hand, it is obvious that the principle of admitting modern specimens presents grave difficulties; taste is apt to change with time; and the admission of the work of any one living manufacturer or craftsman would not improbably expose the administration to attack from others, and even to the charge of advertising for ulterior ends.3

However, the Committee stopped short of an outright ban and reached the conclusion that “after full consideration, [the Committee members] are not disposed to make any definite recommendation on this point; but consider it would be better to leave such questions to be dealt with as they arise.”4

The Museum distanced itself further from collecting and displaying new work when, in 1914, director Cecil Harcourt Smith (1909–24) proposed that the V&A refrain from collecting “modern industrial art.” He proposed instead “a central Museum and Institute of modern industrial art,” which was established following World War I, in 1920, as the British Institute of Industrial Art.5 This act may accurately be described as the single largest factor in discouraging the collecting of modern design within the V&A during the post-Donaldson period; the Museum did not merely sidestep the issue—which would have allowed for serendipitous collecting or even a change in policy—but, instead, helped to establish an alternative organization to exhibit and collect contemporary design.

Although a classical scholar from the British Museum, Harcourt Smith wrote with conviction of the need of the State to promote “Art as applied to Manufacture” and devoted considerable time during his directorship and in his retirement to the new institute, even suggesting that it be located adjacent to the V&A.6 He acknowledged that it was the Museum’s policy to show “very little which is not at least 50 years old” and that “this break in continuity in a Museum which has for its principal object to illustrate and stimulate the craft of design and workmanship by means of the finest examples obtainable is, to say the least, unfortunate.”7

Yet Harcourt Smith could not bring himself to consider this task as relevant to the Museum of his own time, agreeing with the 1908 report that perspective and distance are required in matters of taste (fifty years was the duration almost always mentioned), and that in showing contemporary work the Museum authorities “lay themselves open to the charge of using public funds to encourage selected tradesmen and give them advertisement at the expense of their rivals.”8 While Henry Cole and his colleagues enthusiastically embraced the Museum’s connection with trade, Harcourt Smith and some of his successors felt what might be described as the educated class’s dread of commerce.9

Although the attribution of the Museum’s retreat from contemporary collecting solely to the Donaldson affair is too simplistic, it was an important factor, especially within a civil service environment where maintaining equilibrium was prized. Larger cultural forces also played their part, though it is hardly surprising that they do not surface explicitly in Museum files. The Museum’s new emphasis on historic British, specifically English, design, which began around 1900 and gained force in the decades after World War I (see pp. 277–83), both reflected a new form of romantic nationalism and mitigated against attention being paid to contemporary design.10 This nationalism surely contributed to the antimodernism of British culture (still prevalent today), which, in general, was hostile to the influence of modernist, specifically foreign, architecture and design.11 By contrast, the acceptance of modernist influence in Germany, France, and America was responsible for the spate of design exhibitions and museum collecting in those countries during the same period.12

The British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA) eventually established a presence for modern design within the Museum, although the extent to which the BIIA was identified in the mind of the public with the V&A is difficult to gauge.13 From 1922 (at the latest) to 1929, exhibitions of contemporary “industrial art” were mounted in the Museum’s North Court, and accompanying catalogues were published. The Museum also organized traveling exhibitions for the BIIA. Starved of government funds, the BIIA closed in 1934; some of its collection was returned to lenders, and other pieces were transferred to the V&A.14

Mrs. Margaret Armitage, author (under her maiden name of Bulley) of numerous books on art appreciation, was foremost among the lenders of BIIA material that came to the Museum the year before the BIIA’s closing. The Armitage collection, consisting mainly of textiles (cat. 178), glass, and ceramics, was the single largest gift of twentieth-century material to come to the Museum up to that time. It was a particularly unusual gift, since Mrs. Armitage had agreed with the BIIA and the V&A that, with consultation, she would be allowed to add to it, which she did from 1934 to 1956.15 In general, however, the Museum’s attitude to contemporary collecting remained distant. When the silver craftsman R. E. Stone, for example, sought an appointment to show a celebrated piece of his work to the keeper of metalwork, director Eric Maclagan wrote that the V&A “hardly ever acquires the work of living artists . . . [and] I fear that it is very unlikely that we should be able to contemplate its purchase.”16 Nonetheless, some new or recently made objects found their way into the collections.

During the 1920s and 1930s the Department of Engravings, Illustration and Design enthusiastically collected contemporary work in numerous fields. Its attention to contemporary printmaking, etching especially, was due to the interests of Martin Hardie (keeper 1921–35), a professional etcher who collected the work of distinguished practitioners and friends. Posters were also well represented (fig. 120),Fig.120. "Exhibition of British and Foreign Posters" largely through the acceptance of numerous gifts from firms that commissioned innovative work (including, from 1911, the London Underground and, slightly later, Shell-Mex), as well as through the 1921 gift of Mrs. Joseph T. Clarke.17

Acquisition by gift was the norm for twentieth-century objects, includingFig.121. Sculptures by Rodin not only mass-produced objects such as posters but also the sculptures donated by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) (fig. 121).18 Of the fifty-one studio pots acquired by 1930, only six were purchased.19 The predominance of gifts is explained both by the lack of funds available for acquisitions by the Circulation Department and by the initiative and generosity of donors who included makers, designers, and manufacturers, especially in the interwar period.

Most of the Museum’s twentieth-century collections until 1977 were acquired by the Circulation Department. Its role in collecting twentieth-century objects throughout the twentieth century cannot be overstated, although it is important to distinguish between the department’s approach before and after World War II. During the first half of the century, Circulation concentrated on traveling exhibitions—mainly small collections of objects displayed in a single case (fig. 122)Fig.122. A display of contemporary ceramics—and on loans to art schools, intended to supplement the school collections. Both were generally restricted to relatively inexpensive objects deemed suitable to be placed in the care of other institutions. Circulation had few large objects, such as furniture or sculpture; its collecting favored small pieces, such as ceramics or glass, or flat objects, including textiles. Costume was deemed too wide a field to collect and too difficult to display.

With the appointment of Peter Floud as keeper of the Circulation Department (1947–60), the department’s ambitions expanded. He embarked on a program of organizing larger traveling exhibitions, as well as internal V&A exhibitions (including those with objects borrowed from other departments and museums). Most importantly, he decided that Circulation would specialize in the fields of nineteenth- and (mainly early-) twentieth-century decorative arts. For the first time, subject expertise was actively developed in the department, notably through the groundbreaking 1952 exhibition, “Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts.” Staff members, including Floud, Elizabeth Aslin, Shirley Bury, and Barbara Morris, became the leading authorities on the subject, and they were largely responsible for amassing the collections that led to the V&A’s preeminent reputation, especially regarding work from the Victorian period.

Circulation had its own culture that set it apart from the rest of the Museum. Most of its staff were trained at art schools rather than at private schools and universities. Floud was an active member of the Communist party, and most of his staff were decidedly left-wing. Their attention to the later nineteenth and early twentieth century was determined by several factors: a desire to stake out territory in which they would not compete with the materials departments; an ambition to engage the audience, especially students, designers, and enthusiasts; and a generally more skeptical attitude toward prevailing taste and hierarchies. Even within the most important decorative arts museum in the world, traditional notions of the relative merits of fine and decorative art held sway. Throughout the century, it was generally works by artists or those associated with artists’ groups—for example, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, or William Staite Murray (see cats. 171 and 185)—that would occasionally find their way into the collections of the materials departments, while manufactured goods or those by craftsmen generally ended up in Circulation.

The Circulation exhibition program expanded during the 1950s and 1960s. Floud’s successor, Hugh Wakefield (keeper, 1960–75), had a particular interest in Scandinavian design, which led to several exhibitions, culminating in “Finlandia” in 1961. Acquisitions resulted from virtually all of these exhibitions, as they did on a large scale from the “Modern Chairs” exhibition organized by curator Carol Hogben for the Circulation Department but held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1970 (fig. 123).Fig.123. A view of the "Modern Chairs" Circulation also organized the Museum’s first photography exhibition in some years, the Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective of 1966 (also curated by Hogben), which contributed to the reevaluation of the place of photography within the V&A.20 The department mounted “40 Years of Modern Design” at Bethnal Green, which became, in effect, the Museum’s first twentieth-century gallery, since this exhibition remained on view for many years.

The last two decades have been an uncommonly active period during which the status of twentieth-century objects and their study have risen immeasurably. Within the arena of collecting, the Museum seriously addressed the revival of interest in “classic” designs of the high period of modernism (see cats. 170, 173, and 177), as well as historically important traditional design and technically significant work. A notable and unusually large acquisition in 1974 was a complete interior by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (fig. 124),Fig.124. The Edgar J .Kaufmann Office which in 1993 was installed as the Museum’s first twentieth-century period room.

A new factor in collecting modern objects has been the application of traditional notions of connoisseurship. Whereas the Museum had often been satisfied in the 1960s and 1970s with collecting newly made reproductions of 1920s or 1930s furniture, by the mid-1980s original modern objects were sought and valued for the same reasons as were original eighteenth-century objects. Despite the fact that a museum with rich historical collections is, of course, the natural place for such a development, it has been only in the final years of the century that modern objects have become accepted at the V&A in their own right. The changed view of the twentieth century as a historical period—and the acceptance of such objects into the canon of historical objects worthy of attention—created a new atmosphere in the Museum, encouraging serious study and reappraisal.

The promotion of contemporary design within the Museum also coincided with a period of research into the Museum’s own history. Following on the heels of the Victorian revival that began in the 1950s and gained momentum in the 1960s, the Museum’s part in the history of design became a topic for investigation.21 This, in turn, led to a renewed desire among some Museum staff to return to the original mission and ideals of Henry Cole. The vast majority of twentieth-century objects in the Museum were acquired after 1974, following the appointment of Roy Strong as director.

Strong made contemporary collecting a priority, firstly by allocating to each department a fund specifically for buying objects made after 1920 and, secondly, by making these traditional materials departments responsible for the care of all of the twentieth-century material through the controversial decision to abolish the Circulation Department.22 Responsibility, funds, and expertise for twentieth-century objects were now firmly and exclusively vested with the V&A’s curatorial departments. The 1980s saw the Museum dramatically raise the profile of twentieth-century design within its walls.

In 1980, the Museum announced the establishment of the Boilerhouse exhibition space, intended to exhibit industrial design, to be operated independently by the Conran Foundation.23 Beginning in the following year, the Boilerhouse exhibitions took advantage of a wider public interest in contemporary design and edged the V&A further toward an institutional commitment to it. Then in 1983 the Museum opened its first gallery devoted to its own twentieth-century collections, “British Art & Design 1900–1960,” and in 1987 the Boilerhouse was transformed into the Museum’s own twentieth-century exhibition gallery, in which regular exhibitions are mounted. In 1986, and again in 1988, internal Museum committees considered the issues surrounding the acquisition and display of twentieth-century objects.24

Both Strong and his successor, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, devoted greater attention and resources to the twentieth century, and in 1989 the Board of Trustees decided to allocate at least half of the Museum’s annual purchase grant of £1.4 million (less £500,000 for the library) to twentieth-century objects. Although competition with “heritage” objects continued to make it difficult to obtain major sums of money for expensive pieces from the first quarter of the Fig.125. The Twentieth-Century Gallerycentury, a sea change had undoubtedly occurred. A Museum-wide acquisitions policy published in 1989 reaffirmed the Museum’s commitment to the aims of its founders—a special responsibility to collect contemporary design was acknowledged. In many ways these efforts were successful, for by the 1990s most of what the Museum collected—in numerical terms—was produced in the twentieth century, and most of those objects were contemporary. This fact was acknowledged in the first Museum-wide exhibition devoted exclusively to contemporary collecting, “Collecting for the Future: A Decade of Contemporary Acquisitions” (1990).Fig.126. The Twentieth-Century Gallery

Once the profile of twentieth-century objects was raised, subtler issues about the nature of the Museum’s twentieth-century collecting arose. The new Twentieth Century Art and Design Gallery that opened in 1992 (figs. 125 and 126) included not only a mixture of British and non-British objects, but also many types of industrial design hitherto not collected in a conscious way, including stereo equipment, flashlights, and household Fig.119. Detail of cat.179appliances.25 There is still active debate within the Museum about the extent to which the V&A can incorporate into its various departments the wide variety of design objects currently made. Some argue against collecting objects which fall beyond the traditional materials-based categories covered by the V&A’s departments. The language of 1908 periodically reappears. Although now considered eccentric, occasional protests against collecting things newer than fifty years old continue, as does an unease with exhibiting the products of companies currently in business. Conversely, there are those who argue persuasively that during its first decades the Museum could claim to cover the work of professional designers, whereas today that is no longer the case. While the Museum may acquire contemporary design that corresponds to the collecting interests of particular departments (say, ceramic or furniture), it neither collects nor consistently addresses in exhibitions the majority of work undertaken by professional designers, especially the utilitarian mass-produced objects of industrial design. The Museum’s ability to refer to itself with conviction as a Museum of design, to embrace its Victorian roots as well as to re-create itself for a new century, will depend largely upon its grappling with this issue in the years to come.

Contemporary here refers to the new or nearly new, things still available in the marketplace at the time, or manufactured objects made within the past fifteen years or so that remain in continuous production.
Prominent exceptions in the era after 1900 included the short-Iived Deutsches Museum für Kunst im Handel und Gewerbe in Hagen (1909-c.1921), the Würtemburgisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, and, from 1932, The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
V&A, 1908, pp. 19-20.
Harcourt Smith, 1914, p. 5. For the BIIA’s history, see Pevsner, 1937, pp. 154-5; for its closing, see Museums Journal 33 (1933-34), pp. 369-70. An archive of BIIA papers is held at the British Architectural Library, RIBA, while the V &A holds Nominal Files on both the Institute of Modern Industrial Art (Proposed) and the BIIA.
Harcourt Smith, 1914, p. 1. The report also makes clear that Harcourt Smith was well aware of Continental developments such as the Deutscher Werkbund, an awareness that would continue during the 1920s.
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 3.
Wiener, 1981.
Watkin, 1980, pp. 94-5.
Architect Sir Reginald Blomfield wrote, for example, that modernist architecture was "alien to the English tradition and temperament" (Blomfield, 1934, pp. 12-3).
Ironically, the V&A later hosted the 1989 exhibition, “A Vision of Britain,” which was generally perceived as a direct attack on the influence of modernist design.
It is important to consider the BIIA within the context of the activities of other organizations, such as the Design and Industries Association (founded 1915) and the Council for Art and Industry (Frank Pick, chairman, begun 1934), the reports of various Board of Trade committees (including the Gorrel Committee, 1931-32, on which Sir Eric Maclagan served), and various design exhibitions held in London (Dorland Hall, 1933, and Royal Academy, 1935). See Pevsner, 1937, pp. 154-75.
Numerous other attempts to found a Museum of Modern Industrial Art based on German models involved discussions between Harcourt Smith’s successor, Sir Eric Maclagan (director, 1924-45), and modernist advocates such as Frank Pick and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner; any such prospects were presumably cut short by World War II. See "Institute of Modern Industrial Art (Proposed),” V&A Nominal File.
“Armitage, Mrs G. W., also Mrs Margaret H., 1915-1933,” V&A Nominal File. Mrs. Armitage dealt directly with director Eric Maclagan.
Copy of letter from Maclagan to R. E. Stone, 8 March 1929, provided to Metalwork Department by Mrs. Dorothy Stone (brought to my attention by Eric Turner). For that department's modern collecting, see Turner, 1988.
See London Underground Electric Railways Nominal File; Joseph T. Clarke Nominal File; Hardie, 1931; V&A, 1979.
Although the Rodins remain at the V&A, almost all other twentieth-century sculptures, including those from Circulation, were transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1983.
Watson, 1990. The Ceramics Department was unusually involved in advising Circulation on the acquisition of modern objects due to the wide-ranging interests of the department's keeper, W. B. Honey.
In 1954 the director Leigh Ashton wrote to the photographer Roger Mayne that "photographs are entirely outside the terms of reference of this museum. ..,” adding later that "photography is a purely mechanical process into which the artist does not enter:' See V&A, 1986, p. 6.
This work eventually resulted in Physick, 1982; and Morris, 1986.
Strong, 1978, p. 276, and his Milner Gray lecture to the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, 1978.
“Art in the Boilerhouse,” V&A Press Notice, 17 October 1980, V&A Nominal File 1980/1130, VA 375, "Premises, Policy & Precedent.” The arrangement was that the Conran Foundation would pay for the renovation of the space, use it for about five years, and then move to Milton Keynes where it would establish "an industrial design centre with a permanent collection, constantly changing" (“Art at Work in the Boilerhouse,” V&A Press Notice, 22 October 1980). Eventually, in 1989, the Conran Foundation plan was realized as the Design Museum in London. The V&A’s view was that it would "complement and supplement those areas which are outside the scope of the V&A’s collections." It seems clear that the Museum saw the Boilerhouse as a means to attract a wider audience, especially during a boom time for public interest in design. Within the context of the Thatcher years, it represented a collaboration between a publicly funded institution and the private sector, which was to result in the Museum gaining a fully renovated exhibition space at no capital expense.
"20th Century Acquisitions Policy Committee,” V&A RP 86/369; and "20th Century Art & Design Gallery Team,” V&A RP 88/2328.
There were exceptions, such as Circulation's formation of a radio collection, though few additions were made to this between 1977 and 1992.
Catalogue Images
cat.164. "Omar" cat.165. Cabinet cat.167. Vase
cat.168. Curtain cat.169. Chair cat.170.  Desk and Armchair cat.171. Maud
cat.172. Daily Herald cat.173. Armchair cat.174. Vase cat.175. Alice in Wonderland
cat.176. The Tree of Life cat.177. Screen cat.178. Rug cat.179, Chair
cat.180. "Kestrel" Coffee Set cat.181. Electric Fan Heater cat.182.1. Radio: Ecko Model cat.182.2. Radio: Patriot
cat.182.3. Radio: Ecko Princess cat.182.4. Radio: Roberts Model R500 cat.182.5. Radio in a bag cat.183. Vase
cat.184. Vase cat.185. Wheel of  Life cat.186.1. Design for a Printed Linen cat.186.2. Screenprinted Linen
cat.187. Homemaker Tableware cat.188. Autumn Leaves cat.189. Twiggy cat.190.1. Design for a Dress
cat.190.2. Dress with Zipped Panels cat.191. "Haircut, Yes Please!" cat.192. Bottle cat.193. Casablanca Sideboard
cat.194. One Flesh cat.195. Armchair cat.196. Frankfurt Cabinet cat.197. Telephone: Pink Jelly
cat.198. Drunk Punch cat.199.1. Sandals cat.199.2. Ankle Boots cat.199.3. Cream knee-high calfskin boots
cat.199.4. "Mock Croc" Platform Shoes cat.199.5. Vegetarian Shoes cat.200. Evening Dress