The 1960s at the Victoria and Albert Museum

I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum four times during my month long stay in the UK, it is my favorite London museum. I find the museum to be a peaceful space, much different than the overpowering and continuously crowded British Museum. The variety of materials and the interesting ways in which the displays are designed add to my fascination. Similar to the British Museum, the V&A is gigantic but offers visitors frequent rest areas, air conditioning, pleasing lighting, hands-on displays, behind the scenes videos, and imaginatively designed exhibits. My multiple visits were mainly due to the fact that the museum displays items related to my research interest in 1960s youth culture, primarily the fashion, photography, and theater and performance areas. Surprisingly, the museum does not have a lot of material on display concerning the 1960s culture but has made materials accessible through their website, archives, and National Art Library.

The V&A is well known for their fashion collections, which are partially displayed chronologically in the museum. The 1960s clothing items in the exhibit primarily pertain to women’s fashion of the era, focusing on iconic “Swinging London” designers like Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki. Oddly, men’s fashion, which underwent a renaissance in the 1960s, is almost entirely absent from the display apart from a collection of ties designed by Emilio Pucci, Timothy Glazier, and John Michael. The V&A has a wonderful online exhibit of some of their most iconic fashion pieces, complete with interactive images, biographical information concerning the designers, and the history of the garment. Reading lists of compiled resources related to specific topics, like 1960s Fashion and Textiles, are a useful addition to the site. The V&A, recognizing the importance of the oral history of fashion, has collected interviews with many significant designers. Transcripts for the oral histories are available on the museum’s website. Fashion pieces not on display at the museum are housed offsite in the Archive of Art and Design at the Blythe House.

Some of my favorite items from the V&A, including a Les Paul smashed by Pete Townsend, and a fab outfit designed by Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin

Some of my favorite items from the V&A include a Les Paul smashed by Pete Townsend and a fab outfit designed by Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin

Apart from the materials related to my research on permanent display, I attended the V&A’s Glamour of Italian Fashion since 1945 exhibit. The special exhibition contained numerous beautifully designed Italian clothes and accessories that ranged from Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels to the latest Valentino dress straight off the catwalk. I succeeded in seeing, first hand, some of the Italian suits and other menswear that heavily influenced quintessential mod fashion in the early 1960s. The exhibit was a spectacular ode to the classic and innovative fashion created by some of history’s most influential fashion designers.

 

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume”

Today, our last day of class went out with a bang as we visited the Royal Geographical Society. The RGS was my favorite institutional visit, partly because I had read a lot about Dr. David Livingstone and 19th century African exploration, but also because of the wonderfully rich presentation we were given concerning the “hot and cold” archive materials. The society began in 1830 with the purpose to “promote the advancement of geographical science” by providing for research expeditions, education, access to archives, lectures, and more. The materials that comprise the Royal Geographical Society’s archives fall into three main groups, scientific instruments entrusted to members of RGS expeditions, personal effects, and cultural objects collected by British explorers.

The journeys of Livingstone in Africa between 1851 and 1873

The journeys of Livingstone in Africa between 1851 and 1873

Our class was given an in depth look into some of the most important items in the RGS’s collections that deal with the exploration of Africa, Mt. Everest, the artic and Antarctic. Highlights of the showcase included maps, scientific instruments, and other items utilized by Dr. David Livingstone during his expeditions to find the source of the Nile in the mid 1800s. The portion of Livingstone’s artifact collection we saw contained his famous hat worn at the meeting between the doctor and Henry Stanley in Ujiji in 1871, a compass and hypsometer used during his expeditions, personal illustrations, and a section of the tree under which Stanley and Livingstone apparently met. Other personal highlights of the showcase included copper collars fastened to artic foxes released in 1848 by the crew of H.M.S. Enterprise engraved with the ship’s coordinates. The intention was that the collared foxes would be freed with hopes that members of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition through the last unnavigated area of the Northwest Passage might encounter one of the animals and make for the Enterprise. Unfortunately, this plan did not work.

Royal Geographical Society

Royal Geographical Society

Large portions of the RGS collection contain cultural objects found by British explorers during their expeditions. We were shown a pair of 19th century Inuit “sunglasses” used to prevent snow blindness in the artic circle. Recognizing the usefulness of such an item, the British admiralty subsequently created arctic eye protection based upon Inuit designs. This is a rare example of a willingness and successful attempt to apply knowledge observed from native cultures into British exploration until the 20th century. British explorers in cold climates, such as Robert Falcon Scott in his Antarctic expeditions, were unconvinced that dog sleds or skis were the most efficient way to travel through ice and snow despite their wide use in the arctic region. Perhaps this in one of the reasons why the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who embraced sleds, skiing, and dogs for transportation, beat the British to the South Pole in 1911.

 

Bird Watching

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Earth Hall

After watching a documentary exploring the significance of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, I decided to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum.   In 1858, Wallace independently from Charles Darwin devised the theory of natural selection. The Natural History Museum, originally part of the British Museum, is located in a beautifully designed Romanesque Victorian building. The NHM opened in 1880 to house the naturalist collection of the British Museum. The museum became independent in 1963 with the passing of the British Museums Act after nearly a century of ongoing heated debates.

I found the subtle melding between display material popular in the Victorian period and the museum’s modern exhibits fascinating. No place is the changing taste of museum displays as discernable as the walk between the Victorian Birds Gallery and the modern Earth Hall. Strolling into the Birds Gallery, one is immediately plunged into a room overflowing with Victorian curiosities of the avian variety. The gallery is lined with wood cases containing taxidermy birds dating from the 18th and 19th century. The preserved specimens range from swans to birds of paradise and extinct species like the two Mauritius dodos. Towards the middle of the gallery is the eye catching display of over one hundred hummingbirds opposite cabinets containing just the feet and beaks of avian specimens. Nowadays, this type of museum display has fallen out of fashion. According to the Natural History Museum’s website, “instead of actively collecting, the museum now focuses its work on a range of conservation projects.” The bird gallery is only a small fraction of the specimens available in the museums ornithological collection.

Hummingbird display in the Birds Gallery

Hummingbird display in the Birds Gallery

Ornithology began as a scientific discipline in the 18th century but grew into a respected specialization during the Victorian period. Alfred Russel Wallace made his living collecting birds for wealthy collectors. Wallace’s ornithological collecting expeditions lead to his theories on the origin of species. Darwin too was influenced by the study of birds, most famously the Galapagos Finches. This period saw the popularity of collecting birds for museums or private collections.

The Natural History Museum’s avian collection represents 95% of the world’s bird population. Holdings include 15,000 skeletons, 700,000 skins, 4,000 eggs, 17,000 spirit specimens, and 400,000 sets of eggs. The skin collection houses the largest single collection of bird type specimens in the world. While most of the birds date from the 19th century, with the earliest dating from Captain Cook’s expedition in the 1770s, the collection continues to grow through donations. Please note that present day birds specimens are not killed specifically for the collection. Several notable scientists like Darwin, Wallace, and Walter Rothschild have contributed specimens to the museum. Similar to herbariums, the avian collection is utilized by researchers studying global distribution, taxonomic relationships, seasonal or age differences, and identifying new species. The Natural History Museum’s ornithological collection expands the definition of an archive as an institution that not only collects valued paper records but important scientific biological material as well.