Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Victoria & Albert Museum's National Art Library

It's probably never a good sign when the first part of your class day is when you're nearly left behind. I had allowed myself to sleep in a bit --I'm still catching up from both the Paris trip and the long daytrip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, really trying not to get sick when there's a cough starting to go around. Just to clarify that I'm not sleeping away my London opportunities, when I say "sleep in" it means that I'm letting myself sleep past 8:00, but I have yet to sleep past about 8:30. Then I went over to the computer lab to research train tickets to get me from Edinburgh to my mini-break destination, which I ended up getting only just now because of indecision over the method of procuring the physical tickets themselves (mail or pickup?). I'd finished up blogging, checking email etc. just in time to run back over to the rooms, deposit something in my room, and then head out with the group to the Victoria and Albert (V & A) Museum. Evidently, I had been checked off the headcount list as I was heading through to my room, so when I got back down the class had already left. I managed to catch up with the group pretty quickly, though, waiting at a light to cross the street and catch a bus. No harm done, and a nice burst of panic and adrenaline are just about as good as caffeine in the sleepy early afternoon hours, right? We caught the bus, rode it for a while, got off and caught another bus that would get us closer, rode that one for even longer, and finally hopped off and walked over and crossed the crazily busy and rather wide street to finally get to the V&A Museum.
The V&A Museum is, as you might have guessed, named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It's the largest museum of design and decorative arts in the world. However, the part of the museum that we were specifically interested in, and had come to tour, was the National Art Library. The National Art Library was created with the rest of the museum in 1857, but was only given its own space and heading in 1884. This was the beginning of the other type of Space Race, where there are two great institutions which need the same space for their own ends. The National Art Library has managed to grow in space since its opening, adding several rooms to their original two, now known as the Reading Room and the Centre Room. It has also lost some space back to the museum, in that one of their rooms was turned back into exhibit space with the lone exception of the walls, which were allowed to keep their books (although with a bar across to discourage grabby hands). With an ever growing collection and a no-weeding policy, the library has resorted to clever means of book storage, such as raiding space which used to be old boiler cabinets and turning them into secret compartments for their books. However, there's still a shelving backlog of books that need places to stay. The entire collection is organized not by a classification system, but by size, so that the premium space that is available is used to its best ability. All of the rooms of the library, including the two original rooms of the library, the Reading Room and the Centre Room, could be said to operate under similar policies. The Reading Room is a quiet study area full of desks, people and books. The Centre Room has more study space, along with a black-and-white photocopier (to best preserve the books) which may be used for most books, and a very nice camera set-up so that if you need a color copy or your book is too fragile you may take a picture of it instead, and either print that out or download it onto your flash drive. There's also an Assistance Desk for basic customer needs and an Inquiry Desk for more in-depth help. While most of the collection is closed-stack (readers request a book and librarians bring it to them), there is a small reference section that is open-stack (patrons may select their book off the shelf). The first level of the library, located on an upper level of the museum, contains the Reading Room, Centre Room, some backstage work areas and a conference room. The second floor contains a part of the collections, including the special collections, a good portion of the stacks (including the balcony area of the previously mentioned exhibit) and the primary office space for staff. The third floor contains more storage of the collections, to include exhibition, sales and auction catalogues for such famous art auction houses as Christie's, which often come in handy when researching a more obscure artist because "you definitely know he exists, his name's right there on the page."
After a tour of the general primises and the accompanying lecture on history (mainly what I have told you), focus (not only the collection of the V&A, but also Art and Design as a general field) and issues (the age-old story: space and budget), we were escorted to the conference room for a look at some examples of the National Art Library's collection. First up was a book that was an excellent early example of a book made by an Aldine Press, famous for being the first press to introduce italics. This particular example, printed all in Latin, showed the beginnings of the transition from Gothic script made to look like scribe's handwriting to the more Roman script, like what you are reading now. Next was a copy of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays, the first time that they were gathered together and printed in a single volume. This was done by the King's Players, who were the ones who would put on the plays, and is therefore considered to be the most authentic versions of the plays. The third item we were shown was a fine example of Elizabethan printing, the cover particularly, which featured a family crest in grand Elizabethan style. The actual book is the tenor part of a selection of madrigals. Next we were shown a number of Islamic book bindings minus their books, because in the 17th century it was thought much more important (and easier) to store and carry the beautiful bindings than what they had contained. Then we were shown a printing proof for Charles Dickens' Bleak House, complete with handwritten corrections scattered all throughout the pages. Suitably next was a collection of Bleak House as it was first produced, in small booklets of serial form. Evidently Dickens was writing them as they were produced, so there were a number of times when an illustration was taken out at the last minute because a character featured in them was going to be taken out, or some other issue. Next up were letters from John Everett Millais, famous artist of such paintings as A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge, often shortened to the simpler title of A Huguenot, these particular letters being written to his cousin's wife, a good friend of his. Accompanying the letters in our showing today were larger prints of the drawings he had doodled to illustrate the particulars of the letters. After this we were shown a first-edition copy of William Morris' 1896 fantasy novel The Well at the World's End, which is not in itself counted much of a classic but is noticed more because it features a character named Gandalf, and several other elements which may be said to have inspired both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Then we were shown a book whose title I cannot pronounce (it being in French) but may at least type here for you: Le Choses de Paul Poiret/Vues par George Lepape. It is, in short and in English, a 1911 French fashion catalogue, but if catalogues today were like that we wouldn't call them junk mail. Vivid and opulent illustrated images of which the figure(s) in the clothing line are but a part of the whole experience. A classmate commented that it was more intent on selling a lifestyle than clothes. Then we were done for a time with book-books and were shown selections of book-art and book-objects. The first of these was titled Gesammelte Werke: Band 7, by Dieter Roth. Pages from random comics (I think I saw some Donald Duck in there) and other found materials (I saw what looked to be coloring pages as well) all bound together in a book, with circular holes of various sizes and in various places cut through the entire thing. It would be very hard to read the narrative of the comics, or do anything at all with the book except to simply look at it. And since that is what is was made for, perhaps that's not too bad. Next was our first book-object book-art, made in the shape of a book out of old schooldesks. You could open it up like a book, and then there were various compartments that opened up and scrolls that unrolled and many other things to explore. This I think might have been my favorite, at least of the book-art objects. It was fascinating just to look at and delve into. Almost to the end here, keep reading. Finally of the book-art was something that could just barely be described as a book, in that it had a narrative function: a snowglobe which when shaken and suspended showed words from the American constitution which floated all about. Finally, a facsimile and exact reproduction of one of Da Vinci's notebooks. For some reason I expected it to be large, grand, and imposing, but it was really a small notebook just smaller than a hand, actually of a similar size to a notebook that I happen to carry about. The library owns three such notebooks, the real ones that is, but since they are so valuable they do not take them out often and instead had someone make the exact copies to be looked at. This one in particular had pages upon pages about levers and a few other technical details, as well as some good examples of mirror writing.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the National Art Library, and my short visit to the V&A Museum, the majority of which I spent in some rooms dedicated to the works of Beatrix Potter. I had hoped to see Domenico Dragonetti's double bass, and take copious amounts of pictures for my double-bassist brother, but unfortunately it is not available to be seen unless you make a special appointment with a curator, and I somehow doubt that they would go to that much trouble for me and my camera. Ah well.
Tomorrow our class is getting up bright and early and going on a daytrip to Oxford. Hurrah!
Image is from the Wikipedia page

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