By Object Pitch Day 3 we all knew the rules, and the competition was certainly hotting up. Nine members of V&A staff made their cases for an impressive array of objects, from Katy-Perry-brand false eyelashes to the ironwork cross that once crowned the screen at Salisbury Cathedral. With every pitch as good as the one before, it was getting more and more difficult to say which object would ultimately be victorious…
The first object pitched on day 3 was a rather sinister early 18th-century mask, as worn by a performer in the Commedia dell’arte, the form of popular street theatre that emerged in Italy in the 16th century.
It was chosen by Donatella Barbieri, Senior Research Fellow in Design for Performance at the V&A and London College of Fashion, who used her own experiences as both a designer for and scholar of performance to illustrate the fluctuating fortunes of this kind of mask.
Dontella also showed how ‘close reading’ of her object can challenge and enrich our understanding of it. Although the mask is currently identified as Pulcinella by the V&A, she made a strong case for it representing Arlecchino – or Harlequin – probably the best-known stock character from the Commedia dell’ arte.
Typical of Arlecchino, the mask has a bump growing out of its forehead, recalling the character’s origins in medieval mystery plays as a mischievous devil. By contrast, Pulcinella has a very different mask with a beak-like nose, reflecting the source of the character’s name in the Italian for chick, ‘pulcino’.
The mask, dating from the early 18th century, was made of shiny black leather moulded into rounded planes. Donatella described the importance of its form during performance: being “angled in different directions”, the mask is explicitly designed to drive “the movement of the character through the performance space”. Such pronounced dynamism is typical of the masks made for the Commedia dell’Arte.
These masks were worn by the street theatre troupes who produced the bawdy and irreverent Commedia dell’Arte and toured across Europe, making their living out of physical, largely unscripted performance.
Donatella was particularly struck by the mask’s date – the early 18th century – which she identified as a watershed moment for this type of performance, with “the physicality of the Commedia dell’arte totally subsumed into text by writers including Carlo Goldoni”, who ‘fixed’ the character of Arlecchino in published works including his ‘Harlequin: Servant of Two Masters’ (1743). These plays were marked by “clever verbal jokes” and the disappearance of the mask, and, as a consequence, the loss of the technique of moulded leather mask-making.
Jumping forward to the 20th century, Donatella put the mask in the very different world of avant-garde theatre. The period after the Second World War saw pioneers, including Jacques Lecoq in Paris and the sculptor Amleto Sartori in post-fascist Italy, reject the “irrelevance of erudite, verbose theatre” to usher in a return to physical performance.
This resulted in the rediscovery of the mask as a tool for performance, prompting those involved in avant-garde physical theatre to investigate and adopt leather-moulding techniques used by Renaissance book binders, and to research examples of masks from the Renaissance, such as an Arlecchino mask, which is part of the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) in Paris. The latter’s “feral” appearance, with its “coarse hair” trim, has seen this mask dated to the early 1500s, “as sources from the end of that century show Harlequin’s mask entirely fur-free”.
Donatella’s presentation then jumped forward to 2005 and the Laboratoire d’Etude du Mouvement (LEM) held at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. These mask-based workshops had been part of “Jacques Lecoq’s system of training from the 1970s”. Lecoq’s school, founded in Paris in 1956, has provided training for physical performers and provide “extremely influential, with graduates including Julie Taymor, Steven Berkoff, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones [and] Isla Fisher”, amongst others.
The LEM is a key part of the actors’ training, allowing “the exchange between movement and making, [and] drawing on ideas of the spatial directionality of the commedia masks”. In the process, participants “produce elements that mask not only the face but sometimes the whole body, that are created to invite movement, capture gesture, and to engage with the spontaneity of play – serious, physical play”. In doing so, performers are able to “free their bodies” and “express themselves” in ways beyond words.
Drawing together her presentation – and drawing on her expertise as scholar and designer for performance – Donatella concluded that Arlecchino’s mask “lives on invisibly in the moving bodies of the LEM workshops”.
Kieran Long, Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital, explained that he approached the ‘how’ of selecting an object by considering the sense of a complexity that fills the gap left by the sacred. This is the reason for which he chose an object that would never be thought of as representing the V&A, an object that is at the extreme opposite of any revered museum object: a commercial pack of ‘Katy Perry’ false eyelashes that, although now part of the Museum’s collection thanks to the ‘Rapid Response Collecting’ scheme is something that anyone can purchase for £6 at any pharmacy or department store.
To illustrate this point, Kieran passed around an example of his object – though not the actual museum artefact– that we could all handle without gloves or any special care.
It is the most commonplace thing and, despite the labour involved in producing it – fake lashes are made by hand-sewing individual hairs onto a piece of string – it has recently gone from being a luxury product that barely anyone could own to something almost everyone can buy.
This apparently insignificant object unfolds a wide range of histories and worlds, involving several timely issues that link at a stroke the magic of Cleopatra, as played by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, to what some would consider the darkest excesses of global consumer capitalism, encompassing theatre and performance, gender theory, images of the feminine (including what Kieran describes as Perry’s ‘Robot-from-the-1950s/Girl-next-door look’), economic history, industrial networks, amongst many others. See: http://www.dezeen.com/2013/12/05/opinion-kieran-long-katy-perry-lashes-design-criticism-ethics/
Such an object, Kieran finally suggested, would allow for a very urgent discussion of relationships between craft and manual labour, networks of production and the human cost of objects, contemporary capitalism and celebrity culture.
Katy Canales, assistant curator in the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass department, told of how she changed her mind about the object she was at first planning to pitch: no one seemed to approach the location of the ancient Ming vessel so she decided instead to follow the noise and head to the point of convergence of visitors.
There was an object that she could hear people describe as ‘colourful’, ‘organic’, ‘ribbed’, ‘modern’, breath-taking’, ‘traditional’, ‘dusty’, ‘sperm-like’, ‘new’, ‘heavy’, ‘light’, ‘fragile’, ‘opulent’, ‘wriggling’, ‘sea creature’.
An object that critics have described as ‘Rather wonderful…a fantastical creation’ (The Times), as ‘Wriggling like a large and glowing creature of the sea’ (Home and Interiors) and as something that ‘Whether it attracts you or appals you, […] is certainly breath-taking’ (London’s Evening Standard): the rotunda chandelier by Dale Chihuly that hangs at the Museum’s entrance.
This object was designed by Dale Chihuly and made under his direction by the Chihuly Studio. An earlier version, titled ‘Ice Blue and Spring Green’, was originally installed in the Grand Entrance of the V&A in 1999. This was modified and enlarged in 2001 to form the current V&A Rotunda Chandelier.
Katy then elaborated on her five main reasons for choosing it as the object of focus for this project:
Its location, she said, has a lot to do with its appeal: It is the first thing that many of our visitors, supporters, staff and partners experience as they walk into the V&A and for many it is the key memory they take away with them.
It is very accessible: It provokes both emotional responses and intellectual interpretations, is free to visit online and offline and features in the V&A’s public tours, and publications.
It results of a large-scale international collaboration including Chihuly, his team and a wealth of V&A departments.
It epitomises the V&A’s commitment to both contemporary design and traditional crafts: an object of contemporary design that draws on traditional manufacturing techniques such as those of the Murano glassworks in Venice.
Finally, Katy explained that it is both an aesthetic and a technical feat: “1300 pieces of blown or moulded glass mounted on a steel frame to produce an organic, creative and colourful exploit”.
Catherine Howell, collections manager at the Museum of Childhood, opened her object pitch with a wonderful story told in the voice of a young boy, one of several characters that we could see in two close-up photographs of her chosen object.
“I’m sailing to the mountain with my family. We are all here in our junk – my mother and father, me and my little brother. We are going to visit my grandfather. I can see people fishing from the rocks as we pass by but they have not caught anything yet. Other people are walking along the cliff. An old man with a pipe is admiring the view from his chair. A mother is teaching her child to walk. It looks like someone is thinking about buying a horse.
There are other boats on the lake – these are fishing boats. There are all sorts of people coming and going and working on the mountain. Grandfather is waiting for us on the steps by the shore. His house is near the top of the mountain. It is very grand and he has peacocks in his garden. I want to climb to the very top of the mountain and play with the monkeys.”
This enchanting object, Catherine told us, is referred to as the ‘Chinese Garden’ at the Museum of Childhood where it now resides, although on CMS (the Museum’s collections management system) it is called a ‘model scene’. It is made from a variety of materials: wood, ivory and mother of pearl, semi-precious stones, coral, crystal and metals.
Catherine related the story of how it got there, unfolding interlinked histories of collecting and of particular collections: along with two other objects that are very similar in design, it is said to have been sent as a gift to Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine, by Chia Ch’ing, Emperor of China from 1796 to 1820. The story goes that the ship carrying these gifts was captured by an English man-of-war. They were offered back to the French after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 but the offer was declined. Whether or not this is true, the models are documented as having arrived at the India Museum (established in 1801 by the Honourable East India Company) at the end of 1809. They were transferred to the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) in 1880.
She then proceeded to enumerate the many different kinds of worlds that it invokes, from botanical concerns (the wonderfully intricate reproductions of local specimen) to gemmology (the precious materials and their elaborate finishing), crossing through historical, geographical, mathematical, zoological, museological and mythological worlds, amongst others.
“The models were described in 1881 as ‘Paradises’”, Catherine explained, “and it not hard to see why”. The care and attention to detail and the wonderful use of different materials is simply amazing and could be explored in terms of craftsmanship, design and symbolism.
The object’s history covers major themes such as love, war, journeys, trade, gift-giving and collecting.
It has been on display in Bethnal Green since 1930 and is particularly memorable for visitors: “they remember seeing it when visiting the Museum for the first time and seek it out on return visits, sometimes after several years have elapsed”.
“This object”, Catherine finished by saying, “began life very much as part of the adult world and has since become an important and unforgettable part of the child’s world as well as being a little world of its own”.
Christopher Marsden, Senior Archivist in the Word and Image Department, made his case for an object that has already amassed some illustrious fans, in the form of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: this magnificent 15th -century tapestry showing episodes from the Trojan War.
The commission and sale of the tapestry, he began by telling us, are remarkably well documented – we even know the name of the original dealer who commissioned it in the 15th century. There are three or four sets of these Trojan War tapestries made, but the example in the V&A was sold to Charles VIII of France for the Castle of Amboise following his marriage in 1491, which means this object could potentially tell us a great deal about French court life.
Christopher then described the tapestry’s eventful life in the intervening five centuries. After time in the French city of Grenoble, it hung in France’s national library in Paris, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, before being returned to its original owners.
The tapestry eventually made its way to the V&A after being sold by a dealer, Madame Duruy, and was formally acquired in 1877 with the enthusiastic backing of the designer and author William Morris and the artist Edward Burne-Jones. In spite of this, it languished in the stores for “many, many decades”. Other fragments from the same series survive in New York and Montreal, with another “large chunk” from a parallel series in Zamora, Spain.
The choice of subject matter – the Trojan War – is hugely interesting in itself, especially as this tapestry does not derive its version of the story we’re most familiar with – Homer’s ‘Iliad’ – as this had yet to be rediscovered when the tapestry was made in the late 15th century. Instead, the tapestry took as its source material the medieval ‘Roman de Troie’, an adaptation of late-Latin accounts of the Trojan War.
This literary history helps explain its huge appeal to Morris and Burne-Jones: this is Classical myth reinterpreted as medieval romance with very little trace of Classicism in the design, give or take the appearance of some of the military armour shown. As Morris commented in his supporting letter, “From the historical point of view, these are invaluable since they are instilled with the most intimate feeling of the later Middle Ages untouched as yet by Neo-Classicism and most representative of the romance of the 15th century”.
Christopher identified the potential influence of the tapestry on Morris and Burne-Jones’s own work, especially their designs for tapestries, as another way to approach the object. Like Morris, Burne-Jones also wrote in support of the acquisition. His “absolutely ecstatic letter” said, “These are the most splendid examples of romantic design and colour in tapestry that I have ever seen. I assure you I came away in a state of enthusiasm I have never felt before”.
Christopher finished by looking at how things – costumes, textiles, armour, women – were represented in the tapestry and, in particular, “the way people from Asia are depicted in a medieval tapestry”. In doing so, he stressed the topicality of its subject matter in the late 15th century, “the Trojan War, as a war of East vs. West”, in light of the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
Object Pitch Day 3 saw the very first repeat object: Denys van Alsloot’s ‘The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella in the Brussels Ommegang of 1615’.
First picked by Geoffrey Marsh, director of the Theatre & Performance department, on pitch day 2, this painting got its second vote from Liz Miller, senior curator in the Word & Image Department.
While Geoffrey had interrogated “the nature of this thing, as a fragment”, Liz took us on a tour of the many worlds a single oil painting can open up – if only you look close enough.
Her presentation revelled in the local colour found in van Alsloot’s work, accounting for deliberate designed interventions, like the props, scenery, tableau and magnificent costumes devised especially for the occasion…
…as well as more incidental episodes – like the family watching the procession or the couple flirting in a window – that took place on the side lines…
Liz also impressed how the painting – and the event it commemorated – created meaning for early modern audiences by drawing attention to the presence of Classical myth, episodes from the Old and New Testament of the Bible and heraldic devices, as found on some of the flags and banners depicted.
Taking a step back from the painting’s explicitly depicted subject matter, she also suggested how this object would bring together the widest range of interests and expertise. For her, the painting could also be about Brussels, Madrid, London; the cityscape and the urban environment; vernacular architecture; victory and triumphs; female rule; the court and the city; spectacle; the Brussels Guild of Crossbowmen; the Hapsburgs; the individual and the crowd; gift giving; good governance; performance; spectating and bookselling; court art; artistic collaboration; viewpoint; topographical exactitude and artistic licence; provenance; the painted series; the copy and the style label ‘Baroque’, as well as the date of the events it portrayed (31 May 1615) and the year of its acquisition by the V&A (1859).
Having described the object in such ravishing detail, Liz’s closing sentence was delivered with deadpan understatement: “This is why my choice of object to focus on is ‘The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella in the Brussels Ommegang of 1615’ by Denys van Alsloot”.
Kate Hay, assistant curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, continued the “East/West theme” begun by Christopher Marsden. Her presentation – on a 17th-century wall mirror – was, like the mirror itself, deliberately devised to “reflect light on many different themes and worlds”, showing how objects can be used to make connections between cultures and research institutions.
The mirror, made in Britain in about 1680, is currently on display in the Furniture Gallery after many years in store. It was made in a conventional form for the time, and was designed to be placed between windows in a grand room, probably with a matching table beneath it and candle stands on either side.
The first world reflected in Kate’s presentation was “the world of antiques”. Although little is known about the mirror’s history, it was owned by a well-known antique collector and wealthy businessman, H. H. Mulliner, in the early 20th century. Mulliner formed a large collection of English furniture, as well as publishing an important early book on antiques and the decorative arts in England in the 1920s. As she remarked, “He is just the sort of person who would interest the ongoing project at the University of Leeds on the antiques trade”.
For Kate, however, the “most interesting thing about this mirror is it’s veneered in Chinese lacquer”, which “has been applied like a patchwork”. As the product of two places, it “embodies two world cultures – Asia and the West – and shows both the connections between the worlds and the complete gulf of understanding between the two”.
In this way, the mirror “reflects light on the world” of international trade in the early modern period, especially “the Dutch and English East India Companies”, which traded between the East and brought back goods via India, with the huge expansion in maritime trade in the late 17th century bringing luxury goods, including tea, lacquer and porcelain. This approach encourages links with the National Maritime Museum and British Library, which holds the extensive archives of the East India Company.
As an object that was part of global networks, the mirror also draws attention to Chinese lacquer making. This used the sap of a tree that only grows in East Asia and which could not survive in its raw state on the long voyage from China. This particular object was veneered with so-called ‘Coromandel’ lacquer, which Europeans found highly desirable for its “hard, glossy finish, bright colours and very foreign-looking decoration”. This type of lacquer-making reached its peak in China in the mid-17th century, meaning the lacquer was made at exactly the same moment as it was exported and made into the mirror frame. As Kate noted, “A lot of work remains to be done on the importation of lacquer, about which very little is known”; research that would encourage greater connections between the V&A and the Trading Eurasia project at Warwick University and the East India Company At Home project at University College London.
The mirror also offers a way into the world of trade and shopping in 17th-century London. The panels were probably ordered especially for use as veneers, but other lacquer was imported speculatively and sold at auction to wholesalers, retailers and tradesmen. As Kate showed, the mirror was, in fact, made during a period of transition: British importers responded to huge demand for furniture veneered in lacquer by ordering readymade cabinets, such as this fabulous example currently on display in the Chinese Export Art Gallery, “killing off the demand for lacquer panels”.
Returning to the narrative scene shown on the mirror’s panels, Kate showed us a fascinating digital reconstruction of the panels, as produced by the V&A’s Photography Studio.
This shows what the lacquer looked like in its original form, revealing that, “It appears to have been cut out from a ten-fold screen, a very tiny screen about three-foot high with 15-cm-wide panels”. This previous incarnation is a puzzle in itself, as we “don’t know who imported such screens; whether any survive; or whether they were used in China or simply made and exported from China to be used as veneers”.
Kate finished by taking stock of the V&A’s current position as a global institution – one “in a world where China is becoming the main economic player, and cultural links are being developed between China and the West, including the V&A’s project at Shenzhen”. In this context, “an era when globalisation prevails”, the mirror becomes a point of contact between cultures. In closing, she argued that this “interconnectedness matters, and rather than choosing different worlds we should concentrate on the connectedness that is embodied by a piece of furniture like this”.
The next pitch was by senior curator Alica Robinson, who “straddles the departments of Sculpture and Metalwork”. Her choice, “an acquisition in progress – an object that hasn’t yet arrived on V&A premises”, is “the fabulous, enormous ironwork cross” that was originally on the top of Salisbury Cathedral’s screen.
Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and made by Francis Skidmore of Coventry, the screen was installed in Salisbury Cathedral in 1869 and removed in 1959. Notably, by the 19th century, when the Salisbury screen was made, this type of barrier between the nave and chancel was considered an anachronism, but in Medieval churches had been used to separate the congregation from the clergy. Scott had championed the reintroduction of screens in many of the churches and cathedrals he designed, believing they gave a sense of architectural and spatial cohesion. That this screen was thought to have been scrapped, apart from the gates, makes the cross’s subsequent rediscovery in Salisbury “a wonderful lost-and-found story”.
Alicia’s presentation meditated on the life cycle of objects and, in particular, the shifts in meaning that occur when sacred objects are collected by and displayed in museums. As she commented, “There is a whole lifecycle of screens being created – they go up and come down – they’re taken apart – they might be recreated – resurrected – in museums. But what happens to those types of objects when they’re taken out of context?”
Sticking with the notion of cycles, the cross, as something that is “quintessentially Gothic Revival”, makes us reflect on important issues of style, revival and, ultimately, taste. Like the Hereford Screen, another wonderful example of 19th-century ecclesiastic metalwork on display in the V&A, the Salisbury cross clearly illustrates how particular styles can spectacularly fall out of favour. Once considered to “the most magnificent examples of contemporary metalwork – absolutely lauded exhibition pieces”, objects, like the Salisbury cross and Hereford Screen, were “described as ‘hideous monstrosities’” little over a century later in the 1950s.
Alicia also showed how the cross, as “a wonderfully collaborative object”, can provide valuable insights into the design process. In this instance, the architect G. G. Scott, renowned for his work as an architect and restorer of 800 churches and cathedrals across the country, worked with Francis Skidmore. The latter, less well known at the time of the commission, was a very talented jeweller, silversmith and subsequently the founder of Skidmore’s Art Manufactory. “Their collaboration raises all manner of questions: how does an architect work with a designer who is used to working on a small scale? How do we know who had the final say in the design? How did they work together?”
“Going big”, Alicia went onto to tackle the fundamental questions prompted by sacred objects. “Do these objects actually help worship? Do they inspire contemplation in our age of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘headspace’? Do they help you worship? Are they a distraction? Do they uplift you?”
As an acquisition in progress, the cross also provides an opportunity to reflect on the kinds of questions the V&A asks of an object from the perspective of conservation. “What have we got in this cross at the moment? What do we want to keep? What do we want to conserve? To restore? Do we want it to be sparkling and beautiful and colourful, or do we want it to be poignantly rusty?” As Alicia suggested, this is an ongoing conversation, shaped by ‘”lots of ethics and approaches – and so many views”.
Alicia’s concluding remarks returned to the lifecycle of the cross and its materiality, as a fine example of cast iron, a product that was made in Britain and “exported all over the world”. She also alluded to the tantalising notion of V&A Metalwork curator Eric Turner that “the rest of Salisbury Cathedral’s screen is in Australia”.
Ending with “a modern design related to an ancient one”, Alicia showed us a design produced by Matthew Clarke of the V&A’s Technical Services team for a pallet to transport and store the cross. In doing so, she highlighted that, in common with the worlds suggested by this object, “the voices in its acquisition at the V&A” are also multiple.
Simon Fleury, senior paper conservator, finished Object Pitch Day 3 by stating, “I don’t have an object really – it’s more of an entity that I describe as ‘museum photograph’”. To represent this category, he explored what he described as a “technical photograph”, specifically used to document material condition.
Dwelling on the ‘in-between’ nature of his object, he unpacked the “dual function” of the photograph in the V&A, as both tool and art object. In doing so, he brought into the discussion an important category of objects generated by the museum but not necessarily seen by the public.
For Simon, the technical photograph as an object category can be used to reflect on the function – and functioning – of the museum. His specific choice also provided compelling insights into the V&A’s earliest history: “This early photograph was made by Richard Redgrave, who apparently was the V&A’s first curator”. Made at “the time of the move of the Raphael Cartoons from Hampton Court Palace to the V&A” in 1865, the photograph was until recently on display in the Photographs Gallery.
Simon noted the dual function of the photograph: as something that is simultaneously on show in the galleries and “on my desk in Conservation – that is, on the computer on my desk” as a working document.
This dual purpose – “as a means of producing information and as an object of high art” – has characterised this particular photograph since its creation. While the V&A’s first director Henry Cole insisted on “photography being in the art collection”, Redgrave was less comfortable with this decision, viewing photography as “a tool to describe material condition”. As Simon noted, we “can only wonder how he [Redgrave] would feel about his photography being in the gallery!”.
Simon then went onto to explain the current place of photography in the V&A, using further documentation linked to the Raphael Cartoons to showcase developments in technology. Moving the Cartoons in the 1990s resulted in a flurry of activity, as documented in “colour transparencies, x-ray photographs, breaking-light photographs and condition reports”.
As he then showed, the technical photograph can be seen as both a metaphor for and vital tool in what the V&A does. “What I’m trying to get at – what I’m interested in – is what the photograph in the context of a condition report does. How the photograph mediates the space of interaction of the museum. How the technical photograph is at the heart of what can be seen and said about objects and us, as curators, technicians, conservators, and the stability this recursive operation gives to the fabric of the museum – as if the museum is largely conditioned by and conditional on the photograph”.
In drawing his presentation to a close, Simon drew attention to the V&A as a site of photography – “I’m interested in how saturated the museum is in the photograph” – with the “extraordinary collection in the museum’s photographers’ archives” highlighting those objects that fall outside the V&A’s formal systems of object categorisation.
The ‘museum photograph’ also suggests how large, complex institutions, like the V&A, actually work: “We’re all implicated and co-implicated in how we make them; how we work with them; how they negotiate what can be seen and said here. It’s a very complex mixing up and localising of practice, photographers, conservators, curators, technicians and materials”. Approached in this way, the ‘museum photograph’ offers “a really fascinating window on the museum as an entity of interactivity: what Jacques Rancière, a philosopher of aesthetics, might describe as a ‘factory of the sensible’”.
Once again, the object pitches showcased not only the fantastic, sometimes surprising, objects found in the V&A but also the museum’s wealth of expertise. As on previous pitch days, we were presented with a wide range of objects and an even wider range of approaches. Should we privilege the unique over the mass-produced object? Should we choose an object that made connections between different cultures, or should we choose something that appears to be a world unto itself? Should our choice be one of the most popular, well-known objects in the collection, or should we select a hidden treasure? In the midst of these questions, one thing was becoming increasingly clear: deciding on just one object was shaping up to be an almost impossible decision.
Tune in for Object Pitch Day 4!