Buried treasure: why do museums hide gems?

The world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum, is without a doubt one of the best attempts made to create a completely categorical study of material culture and its socio-political context. It’s one of those beautiful places where no journey to a single object is direct; you have to detour as the corner of something glitters, shimmers or intrigues you into making further inquiry.

The building itself is enough to occupy a good deal of attention; red brick archways and infinitely tall ceilings, gaping hollow cylinders look down on lower floors, platforms and balconies look out over imposingly beautiful displays. Museums should be interactive even when the articles are stowed behind glass, and for me, the V&A does this best.

On recently making one of my every-couple-of-months spontaneous trips to the Big Smog, I came into Victoria Station after what felt like years spent on the Oxford Tube and, despite my best efforts to think outside the box or find a copy of Time Out, I ended up taking a stroll through Chelsea and finding my way to the museum’s Iron House structure in the hope that a dissertation topic may leap at me from its collections.

I’d intended to go for a leisurely wander, but that morning I’d stumbled upon a book about Victorian dress which opened with a reference to a sampler found in the V&A, “Tucked into a lonely corner of the Textile Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a sampler hangs. Quite a few samplers dot the walls, but this one is unique.” The book, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction, goes on to describe the embroidery, a long, journal-like piece articulating a young girl’s mistreatment in domestic service. No flowers, no embellishments, no repetitive lines of the alphabet or biblical verses like the ones you’d usually find on textiles of this kind. The author, Elizabeth Parker, starts with the line, “As I cannot write I put this down freely and simply as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully intrust myself and who I know will bear with all weaknesses.” The confessional red silk lines conclude with “Oh, God, what will become of my soul.” It may not be the most extravagant item in the museum’s collection, but it was one I was quite determined to lay my eyes on and read in full.

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However, the trip to the information desk to locate Elizabeth Parker’s sampler proved fruitless. It would appear that not only does the V&A no longer have a ‘Textile Room’, they’ve moved the sampler off-site to a textile archive. It had be thrown into the abyss to make way for newer acquisitions. Both myself and the volunteer behind the desk were disappointed with the discovery, although I’d like to think I made her day a little more interesting after being asked for the thousandth time where to find the Alexander McQueen exhibition.

I was not exactly surprised. In an age where big museums rely on tourist footfall, overpriced latte and selling expensive postcards in the giftshop, sad little embroideries are not worth the square centimetres they occupy, however educational and enlightening they may prove to be.

Instead, I visited the temporary exhibition What is Luxury? put on by the V&A and the Crafts Council. The stunning and bizarre are collated in an attempt to answer the staged question by displaying overtly luxurious qualities, such as innovation, passion and expertise in design. Elsewhere in the museum, signs, merchandise and advertising for Savage Beauty, the McQueen show, were everywhere.

The sampler possesses none of those qualities of opulence, but there is still something about it which feels as equally valuable and radical as the extravagant items which decorate the main building’s hallways. Whereas the majority of exhibits present those lives of the historically privileged, this small piece of fabric is a tiny voice representing the other side of nineteenth century society. But it would also be foolish of me to suggest that a museum of art and design has any responsibility to display such visually measly items.

Archiving is a necessary practice for large mu- seums feeling the limitations of space. Most of these buildings were built in the mid-nineteenth century, and they’ve had the best part of 200 years of rapidly changing cultural heritage to add into their permanent exhibitions. Die hard V&A fans will notice when the famous circular ‘Fashion’ exhibition changes the occasional mannequin, or adds new ones in. Presentation styles have also changed over the years: as artists have moved into third dimensional graphic work, so has the strain on space in galleries increased, and old, nondescript pieces have been shifted into the cellar/warehouse/archive education centre. Museum curators have to be so on top of the shifting appetites in taste and consumption that the collection filter has become a colander.

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But none of the harsh realities of museum consumption will change the fact that visitors to the V&A will lose out by not having access to Elizabeth Parker’s embroidery; a piece so unique, so revealing, that the seemingly generic samplers alongside it in the archive are questioned for what they hide beneath their perfectly executed cross-stitch. It aids the reading of material as text, gives a voice to the invisible and proves that not every young woman making samplers was doing so with the intention of identifying herself as accomplished.

Its very pitiful nature makes it incongruous alongside the magnificent silks, beading and jewellery found elsewhere in the building. But for that reason, it remains interesting, and it is disappointing that it can only now be accessed on request. It may be old, but it most definitely should not been left to languish in darkness.

The silver lining is found online, where the museum (like many others), has attempted a full electronic exhibition of their permanent and archived materials. As for me, I may not have found what I was looking for, but I did find a dissertation topic.