A Victoria & Albert Museum conservator is carefully handling tiny doll’s house furniture made out of the stems of feathers. Nearby, a flayed mouse – complete with tiny ears - makes for a suitably grand doll’s house rug. In the studio next door, lacquer experts are hard at work on other precious items.
It’s all in a day’s work for the highly specialised staff at the V&A’s new Clothworkers’ Centre for Textiles and Fashion Study and Conservation, which opened this month at Blythe House near Olympia in West London following a £3.5million refurbishment by Haworth Tompkins.
Now, the V&A’s 104,000 strong collection of fashion and textiles, previously in storage in several locations in the South Kensington museum, can be properly housed and made available for study. It is all part of the V&A’s FuturePlan programme, and has the knock-on benefit of freeing up several rooms for conversion back into gallery use.
The V&A’s splendid international collections – which range from couture to folk, wedding dresses to ecclesiastical garments - certainly deserve decent accommodation, and Haworth Tompkins has made the most of the space at the Grade II listed Blythe House, which was originally a headquarters for the Post Office Savings Bank and is shared by the V&A with the British Museum and Science Museum.
The architects have carved out a new reception with floor to ceiling display cabinets from a former storeroom and have greatly improved the quality of the studio spaces through simple moves such as removing carpets to reveal original parquet flooring, stripping the paint off he wall tiles, and bringing in more natural light by replacing frosted windows with plain glass. Creating the storage required both a raised, reinforced floor plus careful consideration of the best spatial provision – a combination of 500 metres of deep, 3m high linear hanging space and 7000 drawers in different sizes.
Curator Edwina Ehrman stresses that this isn’t a gallery, but the ‘coalface’ of storage and conservation that museum visitors usually don’t see. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be beautifully designed, and those who do make appointments to view pieces from the collection will appreciate the qualities of the viewing area. Here, Haworth Tompkins have cleaned and stripped back the space to show off the parquet floors, cream and green tiling and tall windows and installed a gleaming new lighting rig and huge sliding doors to separate off a group study area. Old cupboard doors from South Kensington have been reused within a bank of new storage cupboards, and the museum’s old boardroom table has become the table for the group study room.
It is practical, pleasing but suitably understated. For it’s the collections, when removed from storage and presented on the tables for study, that are quite rightly the real stars of this space.
V&A Clothworkers’ Centre for Textiles and Fashion Study and Conservation, Blythe House, Blythe Road, London. Visits are free, by appointment via email@example.com