Starting to Select the Objects

The majority of our work is not as dramatically visible as the decanting and stripping out of the galleries. The main hub of activity has been happening outside the galleries – in offices, store rooms, libraries, archives and conservation studios. Here we research, develop and refine new content for the galleries.

We have recently reached the significant point in the project of confirming the final selection of museum objects to be displayed in the galleries. Approximately 1,000 objects will be on show when we open, all of them solely from the V&A’s own collections. The process of selecting these objects and grouping them into titled grouped displays takes place in various stages. Our decisions are informed by a variety of aims, requirements and research.

This project is an opportunity to reconfigure and rethink which objects and methods of presentation could provide the best narrative of European design and art during this period.

Initially we took a two-pronged approach to developing the different subjects for display. We revisited all of the Museum’s collections to ascertain which objects could be suitable for inclusion. At the same time, we identified which events, personalities and other elements of the period we considered to be fundamental, significant or desirable for inclusion in the galleries. Bringing the findings of these two activities together, allowed us to see how the objects in our collections could support the historical and intellectual stories that we felt should be presented and vice-versa.

We cannot tell a fully comprehensive story of the whole of Europe during this period but we can productively use the Museum’s diverse collection of objects to explore a range of significant over-riding themes alongside smaller more specific subjects.

Research and discussions about which subjects to include was extremely exciting, especially as it allowed us to take account of new findings and developments in academic research that have occurred since the galleries were last installed. It also allowed us to look more closely at subjects that were previously not so visible in the gallery displays, such as Europe’s connection with the wider world, particularly relationships with Russia and Africa.

Whilst a number of key objects will be returning to the gallery, this is an opportunity to introduce new objects for display. As a result of ongoing digitisation projects, a lot of the Museum’s collections are searchable on our ‘Collections Management Database’ (a staff version of the public Search the Collections resource Preliminary searches could be undertaken using this tool. Of course, a more comprehensive and informed search was necessary, as not all object details and information have yet been uploaded. Determining a constructive way to navigate our way through the collections was also important – not least because a basic electronic search for objects dated as made between 1600-1800 produces 95,362 objects(!).

  • We spoke with Curators and other colleagues from each of the Museum’s different collections (Furniture, Textiles & Fashion; Word & Image; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass, Metalwork, Asia and the National Art Library)
  • We looked through hardcopy records of objects whose full details haven’t yet made their way onto the electronic catalogue

Boxes of hardcopy object information in the Furniture department

An example of a record, for a pearwood culinary mould (German, 1680-1720)

Some of the files used to record information on craftsmen

  • We went to look at and examine objects in the stores. These trips could sometimes result in discovering other objects which hadn’t previously come to our attention.


Looking at some 17th and 18th century books in the National Art Library

The rather tall ladders used to access some of the textiles we looked at in one of the Textiles collection stores

Another enjoyable aspect of looking through stores was that it provided an opportunity to come across intriguing objects that, although not suitable for the galleries, were interesting to see. When looking through a box for a print of quite a different subject, this rather curious scene caught my attention.

Christoph Janmitzer. Landscape with three putti.  German, 1573-1610.

  • We started to make additional research into a long list of objects to explore the information we had about them.

Naturally, all elements of our central research helped to inform each other. Historical research would bring to light certain names, places, dates or terminology which we could use to undertake more specific or inventive searches for objects. Initial research undertaken into objects which appeared promising could also suggest certain themes that may warrant being explored further in the galleries.

This work helped us to establishing an initial plan of displays which were then fully discussed. All objects are multifaceted and so could be displayed to demonstrate or explore a variety of different subjects. Decisions needed to be made over which subject each object would be best suited to.

For example, this remarkable mid-18th century French clock, supported by a bronze elephant, could be presented in relation to:

  • Clock manufacture in the mid-18th century
  • The fashion for ormolu – a specific method of applying gold to a bronze object, principally for the decorative mountings of clocks, furniture and porcelain
  • Methods of bronze casting (the elephant)
  • The profession of the merchand merciers (mercers/retailers who played an important role in the decoration of Parisian homes)
  • The contemporary taste for exotic animals
  • The popularity of singeries, a genre depicting monkeys copying human behavior
  • The fashion for decoration suggestive of ‘fantastical’ scenes
  • Variations of Rococo style, seen in the light floral and scroll decoration around the clock

Another good example of this is the variety scenes depicted on this quilt, any of which could be focused on and explored further in a display.

Large square cover of inlaid patchwork and appliqué, mostly in wools,  Prague, 1790 (T.45-1915)

Deciding upon display subjects and the allocation of objects to them has been an understandably long process of continual reconsideration and revisions. To arrive at the current selection, the curatorial team considered and looked at what must amount to thousands of objects. Whilst being a time-consuming and at times frustrating and complex process, for me this been an extraordinary, enlightening and gratifying opportunity to explore the Museum’s vast collections.

Future blog posts will look more closely at some of the many other aspects of our work that have been informing object selections …