A little girl spent every summer wandering around the V&A with her grandparents. Like all little girls she was entranced by the Costume Court but above all she was intrigued by the signs that stated ‘Private – Staff Only’. What went on behind those doors, what hidden secrets and undiscovered treasures could be found if one only had the key to unlock the past? No-one could have predicted that forty years later that same little girl would be curating a major exhibition at the same Museum.
I have often been asked how it is that I have come to curate Quilts 1700-2010 – there is of course no easy answer to this. Like many, I joined the profession because I am passionate about objects, their ability to communicate across the centuries, to reveal stories about the past. For many years my roles had always been administrative or operational – supervising film crews, ensuring objects, curators and technicians were all in the right place at the right time, managing stores and galleries. In 2001 I left the Tate to join the V&A where I had the opportunity to work directly with the contemporary textile collection – I was also lucky enough to find an extraordinary mentor in my colleague Linda Parry. Linda supported and encouraged me through a series of proposals for small textile displays drawn from the collection including Recent Acquisitions 1992-2002: A Decade of Collecting Textiles; Concealed-Discovered-Revealed: New Work by Sue Lawty and Penelope’s Thread: Tapestry from the Permanent Collection. At this point I was mulling over the idea of a small quilt display – the Head of Exhibitions had just returned from seeing the Gee’s Bend exhibition in the States and suddenly I was invited to put forward a proposal for a major quilt exhibition.
That was nearly six years ago – and I can still remember the horror of walking into a room full of senior managers from across the Museum and giving my first ever powerpoint presentation. At this point I had made my first visit to the Festival of Quilts to evaluate the exhibition’s core audience. I had spent the whole of my visit to Birmingham taking photographs of the crowds – communicating their enthusiasm for quilt-making throughout the presentation, emphasising the importance of exhibiting the V&A’s collection for the first time and of working with contemporary artists. Above all this exhibition would be about the relevance of British quilt making, the significance of the collection and inspiring a new generation to take up their needles. The exhibition proposal was accepted – and I wandered out of the meeting in a daze.
Since then the exhibition has passed through various checks and balances – numerous presentations to sponsors, trustees, various departments across the museum including Press and Marketing, Learning and Interpretation, Design, etc etc. Retaining the vision of the original concept has been at times difficult – some causes you fight, some you have to lose. You are never ever allowed to forget that the reputation of the V&A rests on the quality of its exhibitions and publications. I know I have driven some of my colleagues to distraction – you have put yourself on the line, raised your head above the parapet – every morning you put on your armour of thick skin, pack your bag of resilience and good humour and once again enter the fray. As we have only weeks before the opening I look back and wonder – would I have done anything differently? The answer – as you will have guessed by now – is no. Whatever the outcome one thing is certain – that little girl is still enthralled by the hidden secrets and undiscovered treasures behind the door mark ‘Private – Staff Only’ – only now she gets to share them with you.