Objects are our paintings, books, sculptures, people, and so much more. By looking at them from different perspectives, we design historians aim to tease out why they were made, why they were made in a particular way, what they stand for, how they function – the list could go on endlessly. One could look at objects from the perspectives of materiality, gender, craft, agency, religion, geography, and this list is infinite as well.
This is part of how I started off my first ‘Object of the Week’ post – I tried to explain how objects can be used as sources and by which aspects they might be examined. The aim was to present the variety of ways in which one could explore an object. This post is to show not only the above, but also how a design historical point of view and methodology can examine the most unconventional objects in an intriguing and new way.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most renowned museums for the decorative arts and design in the world. Initially named the South Kensington Museum, the V&A grew out of the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851in London, which showcased machine- and man-made products and design from a variety of countries. However, this week it is not one of the objects housed in the V&A that will be moved into the spotlight – it is the museum itself. By focusing on the V&A not as an institution, but as an object, I will examine particularly the aspect of different forms of memory embodied in the building and its various pieces of decoration and ornament.
One morning upon entering the museum through the so-called ‘Science Gate Entrance’located on Exhibition Road I discovered an intriguing inscription on the bottom right of the gate. It reads Terracotta, which is followed by another two words that are difficult to decipher as well as a date of which only the first number is clearly recognisable. This ‘discovery’was exciting since it revealed the material, the fundamental substance this gate is made of – terracotta – which seemed to me like a very surprising choice.
Interestingly only a day later I found another such inscription, this time in the museum’s courtyard. This inscription, probably due to its location, was far less weathered than the one on the Science Gate, and reads: Terra-cotta. M.H.Blanchard. London 1864. In the 19th century Mark Henry Blanchard “had established himself in Britain as one of the foremost manufacturer[s] of terracotta for architectural use as well as for garden ornaments“ and clearly managed to be commissioned by the V&A. This stamp of his in the courtyard of the museum and one of its gates is an interesting marker of agency of one man’s company in the assemblage that is the museum. It is an indicator not only of the materiality of part of the architecture, but also a marker of the identity of the maker and the time when the gates were made.
Whereas Blanchard’s stamp could also be seen as creating a memory of his company, there are ornaments the V&A carries that more clearly point to the museum-object as an object of memory – even commemoration. The plaques seen above are also located in the museum courtyard and were placed there “In Memory of Jim” and Tycho, the former being Sir Henry Cole’s dog, the latter “a faithful dog”. Both plaques carry dates thus commemorating the years in which the animals died and binding those point in history to the museum.
As well as fixed points in history, the V&A-object also carries indicators of the presence of things now gone – to put it poetically – and through them refers back to its own history. The institution that is now the Royal College of Art used to be the Government School of Design. It moved from Somerset House to what is now the V&A after the Great Exhibition in 1851. The program began to also train students in the arts and thus it became known as the National Art Training School. In 1896 it was renamed again and became the Royal College of Art. One of the entrances to the museum still bears witness to this shared history and another sign in proximity to it commemorates the duration of it.
A different kind of memory is evoked when walking along the exterior of the Victoria and Albert Museum on Exhibition Road. This part of the museum-object is in fact broken and unrestored. However, it is not due to negligence on the part of the people responsible for the upkeep of the museum that has allowed this broken façade to exist until now – it is also part of the object’s history. These damages are testament to bombings of the Second World War and have been left untouched in order to commemorate the events of that time.
Although this post is incomplete and does not take into account all of the aspects of memory and commemoration that can be found in the V&A I hope that it has shown the different types of memories that through the building’s making, the events taking place in and around it, the people engaging with it, and its history, can be found in this peculiar, assembled object. Further, I hope this post has demonstrated how an object such as the Victoria and Albert museum can be explored from a design historical point of view.
 Although it needs to be said that the History of Design MA is co-taught between the RCA and V&A, therefore still connecting the two institutions.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch!
Luisa Coscarelli –
Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how immaterial olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.
© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.