On 18 June, I, along with some of my coursemates, had the pleasure of visiting the V&A’s fashion and textiles archive at Blythe House. This was not our first trip to Blythe House; in January we visited the Archive of Art and Design, where we were shown books, vintage magazines, illustrations, Biba makeup kits, and fabric samples – to name but a few examples. On our most recent excursion, we toured the newly opened Clothworker’s Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion. Our guide was Oriole Cullen, senior curator of contemporary fashion at the V&A.
Upon arriving, Oriole shared a quick history of the impressive building and the V&A’s occupancy of it. Located in West Kensington, Blythe House was constructed between 1899 and 1903 and originally served as the Headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank. The enormous building was the workplace for thousands of employees and was segregated into gender-specific blocks. Oriole informed us that a covered walkway through the courtyard was erected to allow women to pass through without distracting male employees from their work.
In the 1960s, the Headquarters was relocated to Glasgow, leaving the building vacant by the end of the early 1970s. In 1979, it was purchased by the government with the intention of offering storage space to museums. Along with the artifacts from the V&A, Blythe House also houses collections from the British Museum and the Science Museum. Our recent visit focused primarily on the fashion and textiles collection, which, over the course of four years, was carefully transported from the V&A’s South Kensington location.
Blythe House is a Grade II listed heritage building. Not only does this listing limit construction and refurbishment options, it also requires weight to be evenly distributed across the area of each floor. When it came to relocating the collection, this meant that each piece had to be weighed prior to entering the building. In fact, there was a limit on how much weight could be brought in at any given time. Appropriating the building – along with its limitations – and transforming it into a functioning museum archive has involved creativity and maximising of space. This was evident in the first room we viewed: eighteenth-century accessories. In addition to a central storage area, the former toilet stalls are being used as essential space.
From the micro storage space of the toilet stalls, we moved to the macro space provided by the long wings of the vast building. According to Oriole, these rooms offer the same area as a football field. Despite the availability of space, the previously mentioned weight restrictions mean that the archive is – rather than cluttered, dark, and cramped – wonderfully open, clean, and bright. While the objects housed in the building are remarkable pieces of design and history, I was struck by the incredible merging of contemporary design and architectural history present within the building itself. Simply put, the space is beautiful. The London-based architecture firm Haworth Tompkins was responsible for adapting Blythe House to be an aesthetically pleasing yet working archive and education center. The result: an exceptional environment, not only in function but equally in form.
In both the building and the objects housed within, Blythe House symbolises a contemporary conservation of the past for future education. The elegant balance of old and new, along with an overcoming and acceptance of restrictions, has produced a rich research resource that is a design feat in its own right, and thus a fitting home for V&A collections. Although the V&A’s facilities at Blythe House are undoubtedly an accomplishment, one challenge will continuously present itself: space. As Oriole concluded, the archive never ceases to grow, collecting never stops.
The Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Fashion and Textiles opened in October 2013. More information can be found here.
Blythe House was used as the venue for ‘The Concise Dictionary of Dress,’ an exhibition co-curated in 2010 by Adam Philips and Judith Clark, Professor of Fashion and Museology at London College of Fashion. Images and more information available here.
Images: Blythe House, Olympia. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.