Tales from the Archives

Did you know that Henry Cole (1808-1882), the V&A’s first director, started his professional career as an archivist – ‘sub-commissioner’ was his actual job title – in the Records Commission (the forerunner of the National Archives)? Here he undertook the important archival work of calendaring, indexing, sorting, transcribing, and preserving records; and when the occasion demanded, he was prepared to get his hands dirty: in 1834, Cole helped rescue thousands of historical papers from the burning Palace of Westminster, and in 1836, he reported that in the course of sorting the 5000 bundles of Exchequer miscellanea stored in sheds at Carlton Ride, a dead cat and several mummified rats had been found among the damp parchment!

Henry Cole

Henry Cole, cartoon printed in Vanity Fair, 1871. Museum no. E.2178-1932, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fire and rodents aside, many of the tasks that Cole performed at the Records Commission, such as the selection, cataloguing and preservation of unique and irreplaceable records for use by future generations, remain fundamental to the archives profession today. Cole would  doubtless recognise too the importance of archives in supporting accountability, transparency and decision-making, and their power in shaping the collective memory.

The V&A’s extensive archives offer a wealth of documentary materials for investigation, inspiration and discovery. Whether your interest is in the history of the V&A’s object collections or the evolution of the Grade 1 listed building that houses them (arguably an object in its own right), its exhibition programme spanning over 150 years or its responses to cultural, political and social change (e.g. suffragette activism and the two World Wars), there will be a story for you to uncover.

Our archives, however, don’t just focus on the rich institutional history of V&A. We also collect the archives of individuals and organisations (345 separate collections, last count) that complement the many different areas in which the Museum actively collects. These include architecture and interior design, book illustration, ceramics and glass, contemporary art and design, exhibition design, fashion, fine arts, furniture design, graphic design, metalwork, silver and jewellery, stained glass design, and textile design.

You can explore the changing tastes of the consumer through the archives of interior design retailers such as Heal & Son and Habitat, or revolutionary fashion styles as represented in the archives of John Stephen (the ‘King of Carnaby Street’), Barbara Hulanicki and Biba, the Presage fashion forecast magazine, and 1970s knitwear by Ritva. Or delve into the weird and wonderful world of Eduardo Paolozzi’s Krazy Kat Arkive of Twentieth-Century Popular Culture.

Mr Machine

Mr. Machine, designed by Edouard Paolozzi, 20th century. Museum no. AAD/1985/3/1/381,© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Archives

The Victoria and Albert Museum Archives comprise the Archive of Art and Design (AAD), the Beatrix Potter Collections and the V&A Archive.

The Archive of Art and Design

Established in 1978 to house the V&A’s growing archival holdings, the Archive of Art and Design collects, conserves and makes available for research the archives of individuals, associations and companies involved in design and the applied arts. Particular emphasis is placed on records concerning 19th- and 20th-century British design.

Antoni and Alison sketchbook

Sketchbook page, Antoni and Alison, mid 1980s. Museum no. AAD/1997/20, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Beatrix Potter Collections

This major collection of material relating to Beatrix Potter has at its core the Linder Bequest, which includes correspondence, drawings, watercolours, photographs, literary manuscripts and other memorabilia. Also available for consultation are the 280 drawings and 40 early editions that comprise the separate Linder Collection, which remains the property of the Linder Trust. Since November 2006 the V&A has held on loan the Beatrix Potter archives of Frederick Warne & Co., the publishers of the Peter Rabbit books since 1902.

The V&A Archive

The V&A Archive was established in 1992 to preserve the Museum’s institutional records and make them accessible to the public, as required under the Public Records Acts. These records date from 1837 through to the present day, and provide details of the acquisition and provenance of the Museum’s several million objects; its relations with major donors, collectors and lenders; its collecting policies and development; and the architectural history of the South Kensington site.

William Morris letter

Pages of a letter from William Morris, dated 20 December 1886, recommending the purchase of a tapestry depicting the story of the Trojan War. Museum no. 6-1887, Archive Ref. MA/1/D1995, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2013 promises to be an exciting one for the Archives. Plans to enhance access to our collections include:

  • Increasing the number of archive catalogues online.
  • Redisplaying Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Krazy Kat Arkive of Twentieth-Century Popular Culture’.
  • Reopening the original grand entrance at Blythe House, and inaugurating our enhanced visitor facilities, part of the Clothworkers’ Centre development.

Through the Tales from the Archives blog we plan to share with you interesting facts about the history of the V&A illustrated from our extensive archival holdings, keep you informed about our current and future projects, give you sneak previews of our new acquisitions and insights into what it is like to run a busy archive service.

Visit our Archives

You can access our archives by visiting the Blythe House Reading Room, which is located at Blythe House, 23 Blythe Road, London, W14 0QX, and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10.00 to 16.30, by appointment.

For further information, call 0207 602 8832 or visit our Archives webpage