Hiding in plain sight: the secret life of a mount maker

Furniture, Textiles and Fashion
August 4, 2021

They elevate and secure objects on display, and yet, they often go unnoticed. What’s hiding in plain sight in the museum? Mounts! I caught up with mount maker Andrew Monks to find out more about his work behind the scenes on the new Design 1900 – Now gallery. 

View of the new Design 1900 – Now gallery. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hi Andy! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Before we get started, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your work? 

I’m a mount-maker in the Technical Services department. I spent my first three years at the V&A at the former Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, and, when it closed, I moved to the V&A in South Kensington. There, I joined the exhibitions team and helped install exhibitions. As my interest gradually shifted to mount-making, I naturally moved to the mounts workshop and never left. I have been with the V&A for about 18 years now. 

What kind of training or skills are required to do what you do? 

Mount-making is not something you can easily study as a subject in a college or elsewhere – that being said, a lot of our technicians come from an art background. I was fortunate enough to be taught by some really good mount makers when I first started working here. But you don’t become a mount-maker in five years, it’s a very long process to gain the right experience. You learn by looking: I still go around the museum checking mounts made by my predecessors. Realistically, all objects require a different methodology, so each time you’re given a new object it’s almost a new learning process. 

Part of the Algue room divider being assembled in the studio before installation in Design 1900 – Now. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In terms of skills, the most important is to be able to visualise something before you create it. You need to have analytical skills as well, because mount-making is about problem-solving and finding the right way to display an object. You have to be empathetic, as your job is to respect the viewer and remember that your mount isn’t there to be seen. Communication skills are also very important, as you’re continuously collaborating with colleagues from Conservation, Collections and Design; but also with the external ‘mount-making world’ to stay up to date with the latest developments in the field. Finally, a mount-maker requires manual dexterity, to turn the concept of the mount into a real item. 

The Algue room divider on display in the ‘Housing and Living’ section of Design 1900 – Now. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Could you tell us more specifically about your contribution to Design 1900-Now? 

Once designs for a gallery have been drawn up and agreed with the Curators, the project comes to Technical Services. I’m one of two Lead Technicians on this project – I take care of mount-making while my colleague looks after installation, though there’s a high degree of information sharing between our roles. In the first part of the project, we conceived the way around 60 objects would be mounted, advising on and planning the Design 1900-Now displays.

The second phase focused on making those mounts, with the help of my team. When you are designing a mount, you have certain install methods in mind, and drawing a template is immensely useful for the team installing. This way, they don’t have to start measuring everything up and figure out where each screw goes. We draw templates in the workshop as much as possible rather than having to go into the space. It’s more reliable than counting on someone being present (especially during Covid times). However, I was present during the install of some complicated objects, such as the Assemble Mantelpiece by the Granby Workshops.

Andy’s notes compile the type of materials and displays considered before making a mount. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What makes a great mount?

One that you are not aware of. And, one that doesn’t make you question how it’s made. The simpler and the more discrete, the better. That’s the skill of it. Anybody can make a mount that holds an object, but certainly the craft is in making that mount disappear so that it doesn’t interfere with the viewer’s pleasure of the object. 

Could you guide us through the process of making a mount?

It starts with a conversation between the Designers, Curators and Conservators which dictates how the object can be displayed. This includes discussing the safety of the visitors and the object – you don’t want something falling off the wall and hitting something and/or someone, or breaking! 

Drawings and mount for the Aura Seismic Suit  on display in the ‘Communication and Data’ section of Design 1900 – Now. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Before I can start visualising a mount, I need to understand the space in which the object will be displayed and how the object will be supported, at what height, etc. I think about all sides of the object: not only the one visible by visitors, but also the back, as this is often the part that will be supported by the mount. For more complicated mounts, we tend to draw CADs (Computer Aided Designs) on computer software to obtain exact results.

Understanding the process of installation is also important. I take into consideration the Technicians that are going to be involved in that process and try to make a mount that is the most helpful to them and will make their job easier. 

What kinds of materials do you use?

The materials are defined by the object. For example, I tend to use brass for smaller objects of a handheld size. It’s a very malleable material and it’s easily drilled through, soldered, or brazed together. For 2D objects, we use support materials such as Dibond (a sheet equivalent of a sort of aluminium, with a plastic or rubber sandwiched in between), and steel is ideal for larger mounts as it can support large loads. All materials are submitted to an Oddy test to ensure that they are safe to be used in and around objects. This involves ‘stress testing’ the materials to make sure that they won’t emit acids, formaldehydes, or other harmful chemicals as they age.

The new Design-1900 Now gallery presents a large variety of objects: from bicycles to soft toys, furniture to flags, and a speculum. What was the most challenging object you had to make a mount for?

It was a mantelpiece made by members of the Granby Workshop, a social enterprise created in Liverpool by the Turner Prize winner collective Assemble. We installed it in the ‘Crisis and Conflict’ section of the gallery along with two lampshades from the same project. The mantelpiece is actually a very simple design, made of four cast pieces of concrete which, in a normal context, like in a house, could be cemented in your wall. 

The Assemble mantlepiece and lampshades installed in the ‘Crisis and Conflict’ section of Design 1900 – Now. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But this method is too invasive for a museum object. Moreover, the object was meant to lean on a free-standing wall, and in short, it had no structural integrity. So in order to display the object safely, we decided to source a metal structure for the mantelpiece to sit on and be supported by. The design had to be drawn up and specified before being sent out to a metal fabricator. We decided on a wide L-bracket mount supported by a series of rods and bolts. A lot of thinking went into the type of surface finish we wanted and the sharpness of the edges – I think the result looks good! 

… and unexpected/fun?  

I certainly did not expect to mount so many mobile phones! It’s not the type of object you typically find in other galleries of the V&A. 

Thanks Andy! I’ll finish this interview by inviting readers to come and have a look – but, hopefully, not notice – the results of your work in the new Design 1900-Now gallery, open now!

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