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Vox Pop: The V&A - Musical Instruments or Fashion? | reviews, news & interviews

Vox Pop: The V&A - Musical Instruments or Fashion?

Vox Pop: The V&A - Musical Instruments or Fashion?

The great museum jettisons music to make more fashion space - what does the public think?

The Victoria and Albert Museum intends on 22 February to disperse its collection of musical instruments to other venues, to allow more room for fashion and textile exhibits. Conductor Christopher Hogwood and composer Oliver Knussen are two more well-known names in the list of more than 5,100 signatories to the petition lodged at 10 Downing Street asking for the move to be prevented. theartsdesk invited big hitters on either side to debate the case - Roxy Music designer Anthony Price makes the fashion case, while conductor Laurence Cummings heads the musician's view. And we ask you: What do you think? Please take part in the debate by making your comment below.


Press Statement from the V&A Museum


Decant of musical instruments

"Gallery 40, which currently houses both musical instruments and the fashion collection, is in need of refurbishment. The musical instrument collection will be removed in spring 2010 so that the gallery can be redesigned to show the fashion collections and related temporary displays over two floors.

"Although this will mean that there will be no gallery dedicated to musical instruments at the V&A, there are musical instruments on display in other contexts, such as the British Galleries and the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Further instruments will go on display in the Furniture gallery which opens in 2012 and in the new Europe 1600-1800 galleries when they open in 2014.

"The V&A and the Horniman Museum are discussing the long term loan of significant objects from the V&A's collection of musical instruments to the Horniman Museum. This would complement the Horniman's existing musical instrument collections (which include the Boosey and Hawkes collection) which would themselves provide an illuminating historical context to the V&A collection. In the interim, the musical instrument collection will be accessible by appointment as part of the Museum's Study Collections at Blythe House, Kensington Olympia."


In the MUSIC corner

Petition to 10 Downing Street

submitted 19 January 2010 by Mrs Jay Wilkinson

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ensure that all members of the public have continued, free and open access to the complete historic and valuable musical instrument collection entrusted over generations to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and currently exhibited in Room 40 (Jan 2010).

The V & A are intending to place in long-term storage its collection of historic musical instruments, which is unparalleled in the UK. The reason for this destruction, given by a V & A spokesman, is so that "the gallery can be redesigned to show the fashion collections." Musical instruments have been part of the collection since its inception in 1851: the museum has received adverse comment on this plan from curators  worldwide. The removal is to take place in Spring 2010, and is  short-term decision which will have long-term negative results for scholars and music lovers alike.
More details

  • Signatories so far include singers Sir Thomas Allen and Emma Kirkby, composers Oliver Knussen and Gavin Bryars, pianists Roger Vignoles, Angela Hewitt and Paul Lewis, conductors Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood and Laurence Cummings, cellist Stephen Isserlis, organist Thomas Trotter, Lindsay Quartet leader Peter Cropper, photographer Clive Barda and former director of the Royal Academy Sir Norman Rosenthal.


Jay Wilkinson

musician, launched the Downing Street petition

My family always enjoyed going to Room 40 in the V&A to see the musical instruments - our kids loved it. I was telling someone about this only the other day, then I read that it was closing. Mine is purely a gut reaction about something that we would miss very much. The V&A is in the heart of that place in London where you naturally take children, where there's a wealth of stuff for them to enjoy, those three marvellous museums - the Natural History, the Science Museum and the V&A - and it is where you just do go for a Sunday afternoon. Now my children are in their teens and they both play musical instruments. If the musical instruments are lost from the V&A they won’t be on families' radar.


Laurence Cummings

conductor and harpsichordist, musical director of the London Handel Orchestra and Head of Historical Performance at the Royal Academy of Music

I have put my name to the petition, though I fear it’s all done and dusted. In a funny kind of way the instruments may even be better off in storage than where they are now. Basically the instruments have been kept in a zoo-like manner in the cases without really the right conditions. It’s the hot harsh lighting in the museum that is the biggest threat. The humidity and temperature are more carefully controlled in storage and you can monitor instruments better. But it’s as if music were no longer a serious part of the V&A Museum’s thinking.

The sadness for me is that they can’t be more accessible. There are only a couple of instruments in other rooms in the V&A, where they can be seen in their true context. Also opening hours have not been great, so not enough people are going to see them because you have to know when they are available. The sadness is that it shows the lack of care for the subject.

I have visited the Royal College of Music and Horniman Museum [two of the places likely to benefit from the V&S dispersal] where it’s a better environment because instruments are allowed to be played a little, and they are kept in good conditions. They care for them as musical instruments, not as pieces of furtniture; they monitor the humidity and temperature very carefully, and the lighting is minimal, whereas it’s quite harsh and hot at the V&A.

hatchlands_elisabeth_morganThere’s a fantastic collection also at the Royal Academy of Music, where I teach, which has a  collection of pianos. Hatchlands, which is National Trust, is also an exemplary place where instruments can actually be played, under strict conditions, by the very best instrumentalists (pictured, Elizabeth Morgan playing Chopin's piano at Hatchlands). And there’s also Fenton House in Hampstead. But these are small eclectic collections usually made by one person, seen in a historical context in a relatively small house. Whereas the V&A’s instruments are very, very special. There are some very valuable instruments.

Playing old instruments is always the best research - you can’t play them without learning how each one worked, because you respond to the instrument. Nobody’s been allowed to play the V&A instruments, which is the main thing that musical instruments should be allowed to be. They speak to you only when you play them, it’s not like a painting where the whole idea is to look at it with the naked eye and let your imagination takes over. Looking at an instrument is really only a very small part of it. It would be great to hear what a 16th-century recorder sounds like. It should be possible to bring them back into some playability. You would have to gauge very carefully what could be done - you might play one instrument two minutes a year, another one three hours a week.

I would have no qualms with the idea that the V&A loaned instruments out to places with the right conditions on semi-permanent loan, but it‘s so sad if the collection loses its identity. They should keep them at their collection, so that perhaps one day again they will want to build a musical instruments gallery and can get them back there again.

I sound as if I’m being very harsh on the V&A but I understand the pressures they have, with so many visitors. People can knock things, so I understand the conundrum. But the greatest sadness is that they’re giving up on them, rather than making the right conditions for them, compared with the trouble they take over conditions in some of their other galleries. It’s as if they haven’t chosen to treat musical instruments as a serious part of their collection.


The Columbus Guitar Society

Capital University, Conservatory of Music, Columbus, Ohio

We have just received the sad and very extraordinary news that one of the world's major collections of historic musical instruments, that of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, is to permanently close on February 22nd 2010... It may come as a surprise to many that the V&A does not have a dedicated organologist, or even conservator who specialises in musical instruments, to look after the collection; the instruments have always come under the umbrella of the Department of Furniture & Woodwork.

It seems inconceivable that the V&A, one of the world's most celebrated and foremost museums, has taken this decision, which will consign the collection to various other museums and effectively split it up, perhaps forever... Given some of the rather superficial and frankly tacky displays that have been mounted in the V&A in the name of "fashion" in recent years, which clearly have the blessing of the powers-that-be there, any pleas may well fall on deaf ears and closed minds. The instruments seem to be losing out to the unfortunate and short-sighted modern disdain for anything other than disposable popular culture, and the general dumbing-down that many museums seem to feel they must indulge in, simply in order to justify their existencies (sic). More details

Ron (UK), in the above discussion

This is a tragedy for collections of musical instruments in museums everywhere... Something must be done to keep these fragile instruments on view to the public.  Otherwise they will be sold to private collectors and never seen by students of music ever again.

Sterling Price (US), in the above discussion

The V&A has my two favorite lutes - the massively ornate J H Goldt baroque lute (see main image) and the almost as impressive Rauch baroque lute. Whenever I am in London I make it a point to see them... sigh...

Arturo Viola

music administrator, by email

I have been there twice and spent hours. I cannot think of anything as wonderful as that room!


In the FASHION corner


Anthony Price

fashion designer (Roxy Music, David Bowie, Duran Duran)

Anthony_Price_suitI would say to the musicians, we fashion people have as much right to showing history as they do. It’s a difficult one. I can see their point of view, because these are couture instruments! They’re masterpieces created out of the craft of instrument-building. And they only see the frivolity of fashion... well, I would remind them that I see them as equal.

I agree the V&A would have to find some fantastic pieces to merit this kind of substitution. Let’s face it, a Kylie exhibition puts bums on seats, hmm. But I would say to the musicians that if there are garments made by people as expert as those instrument makers, and of the same time, those garments would deserve equal status in the galleries. But if the exhibition space is to be used for frivolous things... well, let’s say, Kylie costumes, that would hold the same magic as an Elvis guitar, rather than a Stradivarius. Let’s also remind ourselves what the film Amadeus taught us, that is classic now was pop once. Also let’s remind ourselves that the BBC burned old Ready Steady Go tapes with Otis Redding on... those would be priceless records of culture now. So I would say there are certain aspects of fashion that are as indisposable as those musical instruments.

I studied at the Royal College of Art, where they moved the fashion department down to Exhibition Road, so I spent a lot of time going over there. We’d go and sit in the library every Friday and go through magazines, paintings, whatever about the history of costume. It’s very difficult to approach anything modern without a knowledge of its history. The simple fact is that design stands on someone else’s shoulders. Clothes have to move, to fall, follow the person around, become an extension of the body - when you dress somebody, you become quite personally involved, almost a psychologist as a couturier, because you’re being asked to share their drama. Remember until Paris Singer invented the sewing machine, all garments were made in that personal way. It’s those designers today who manage to make a garment attain some of that lost connection who will have what’s called a winner-seller.

peter_the_great_1727-30_suit_kremlinFrom my point of view it was the oldest things that I remember. I remember seeing an exhibition of Russian court costume from the 17th and 16th century, which were absolutely mesmerising - they were laboured and worked on and fantastic constructions that you marvelled at. In Russia they have Catherine the Great’s dresses (Peter the Great's suit, 1727-30, pictured left, Kremlin Museum). In Britain we don’t have our equivalents. I don’t think we have much Tudor costumes left, the conditions weren’t right, the fabics perished. They only exist in paintings now. It's only recently we have invented the methods to keep and preserve fabric.

But the galleries can't just be about old history. Remember how amazing costumes now can become future classics, like the costumes from Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula - jawdropping things. Probably the most famous collection in modern history would have been the 1947 Dior "New Look" which came in immediately after war austerity, and there is very little film of it, not many exhibits, just a lot of description of it. Before cameras, film, and proper preservation techniques, all you had was the writers who could see something and describe it.

I can’t say there are any direct historical links between what I saw at the V&A and Roxy - no, it was too recent. But it had trained me in the art of tailoring, which hasn’t changed that much. Historical links wouldn’t be understood by the wearers, who were ordinary boys desperate to make it from a working class background. That’s my main fear of having a fantastic old costume exhibition - that the public wouldn’t be that interested. I do fear they’d rather see Kylie and Elvis’s guitar than that amazing 16th-century lute or that Tudor dress. Anthony Price on wikipedia

Judith Watt

lecturer on history of fashion at Central St Martin's, author of Ossie Clark: 1965-1974, published for the Victoria & Albert Museum 2003 Ossie Clark exhibition

Sorry, but I don't think fashion has enough space there, because Britain has such an important fashion culture, particularly in terms of fashion education and in design talent. And fashion really is part of our culture, so important. The places where design students can research are incredibly limited. There are very very few important costume collections, and the V&A is the major one. We see only a fraction, but a fraction of it, on display. I’ve been going there since I was 12, and that’s how I personally got into fashion and costume. I would hate to take away any space from music, but dress affects everybody, not just a few.

The V&A are always overwhelmed by people wanting to see fashion and textiles. Fashion and education now is an absolute bandwagon - if you look at how fashion is promoted by the British Fashion Council - but these poor designers, year in and year out, so many more people at college, they don’t get to see historical garments. I know what’s in storage there, and I know what’s not seen. I think the V&A could put on exhibitions of 17th- and 18th-century fashion and textiles. Students don’t have enough access to go and see 18th-century dress, and if they can actually touch these fabrics, or see hats made by London milliners of that period, it’s inspiring.

queen_maud_exhibition_2005I’m sure it’s just as important for the musicians to touch their historical instruments, but fashion’s what interests me. And what’s really tragic about this argument is that fashion and music bond together so often, look at Anthony Price and Roxy Music, or Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.

I’d agree completely that Kylie exhibitions or Grace Kelly displays are totally commercial - that’s about the institution needing money, that’s all that’s about. A few years ago I told my students to see Queen Maud of Norway’s wardrobe that was being exhibited at the V&A (pictured, exhibition 2005), and they all preferred it to the contemporary ones, because it was so strange, so foreign, so inspiring. There is a huge richness at the V&A that should be on display and isn’t. Historical display still inspires students and designers immensely.


Tony Glenville

Creative Director: School of Media and Communication, London College of Fashion

The V & A costume archive represents not only British fashion across the decades but is an invaluable resource for research and drawing for students in fashion education. Students from London College of Fashion, across a broad range of courses, often draw live at the V & A for various events, and use the rich variety of dress on display for both inspiration and investigation. The opportunity to expand and extend this area would be of tremendous benefit.

To be honest, one of the great things England is known for is its fashion. We have an extraordinary history of fashion and of fashion education. Everywhere in Britain there are colleges going to the V&A. And although I completely understand how contentious this is, when one subject is moved out to make room for another, from our point of view those are amazing galleries. They provide this fantastic opportunity to see real clothes up close.

One has to be pragmatic - in the 21st century a museum also has to draw in crowds, which you see with the Kylie and the Three Degrees exhibitions. But they also had the extraordinary Stephen Jones milliery exhibition which had items from right back in the 15th and 16th-century archives. It often leads on that the young person who likes fashion and celebrity and goes to Kylie, then sees some historical costume, then they go to Northumbria or LCF and start a serious training.


To be perfectly honest, I love the Horniman, their collection of musical instruments is amazing, and should really be showcased more. So as sad as I would be to see the V&A's collection disbanded, if it brought more attention to the Horniman that would make me very happy.

As a southeast Londoner I must concur with Masonic Boom: anything that brings attention to the Horniman is AOK with me.

This may sound heretical coming from a music person, but I never much cared for just looking at instruments, though some can be exquisitely designed. A living showcase, like the collection of pianos at Hatchlands and the surely now defunct Museum of Mechanical Instruments at Brentford, where loving curators can demonstrate is surely more valuable. I don't know what they get up to at the Horniman; maybe that's a bit more 'live'? So might this not be a good opportunity for th V&A to find its collection a special home with a full programme of concerts and hourly demos?

To what extent is the fact that fashion=sponsorship a factor in all this? Of course, fashion should be displayed, but why not instruments too? London is not just a fashion centre of the world, it's a musical centre of the world and brings just as much income to the UK as does fashion.

The issue I would raise to the fasionistas, is that nobody is suggesting their displays should be cut or removed. As someone who researches historical playing techniques, period costumes are as vital to what I do as period instruments (you try playing a harp in a corset and tell me it doesn't change your body position!). Closing the instrument gallery to extend the fashion display is negating one aspect of history. To say that one deserves to be displayed and the other doesn't is ridiculous, and to say that fashion needs space at the expense of any other subject it not a very realistic premise to base any argument on

I'd be really sorry to see the instruments go. The musical instrument section is somewhere I always head for when I go to the V & A (which I realise isn't often enough - to be rectified asap).

Ridiculous that musical instruments should be upstaged by something as transient as fashion. I am an art school graduate, members of my family are musicians. Music has a far greater effect on more people than frocks.

The issue with the Horniman as wonderful as it is, is that they simply do not have the the space, they can only display 20% of the current collection adding more is pointless. Compton Verney offered to take the entire collection they have funding and curatorial credability they should be allowed to have the instruments on long term loan keeping most of them on display.

Liz, I take your point, but music is to be heard and not just seen (beautiful as some of those instruments are). Visibility of fashion is the V&A's brief, so I understand that's a priority. I just wish it wasn't an "either" "or" situation. Isn't there another National Trust property which could take on the V&A instruments and make sure they be struck , plucked or blown, if they're not too fragile, at regular intervals?

Latest just now from the V&A: Today would normally be the only opening day in the month for it, but they are opening for an extra six days: tomorrow Thursday, probably the weekend 13 and 14 February (to be confirmed), and definitely the Friday-Sunday weekend 19 to 21 February. Then the closure goes ahead.

I went along to the last day yesterday. Lots of angry people. I took photos and video: I'll splice the vid together and put it on YouTube. Amusingly, I overheard (and recorded by accident - I was filming a viola da gamba at the time and the microphone picked him up - ) a V&A official holding forth on why the instruments should be replaced by a fashion display. He blamed the public. It's our fault for not visiting more often. He failed to mention the dust, neglect, woodworm, lack of multimedia (each instrument should have a button you can press to see and hear it being played) and absurd opening hours. The Thatcher defence, in other words: cut the legs off a chunk of the public sector, then berate it for being unable to walk, then shut it down. I wouldn't be surprised if Cameron flogged some of the instruments off, claiming (a) the public isn't interested, (b) the private sector would care for them better and (c) it would help prevent museum admission charges from being introduced. Don't forget the Tories introduced a £5 entry charge to the V&A last time they were in power. Ho hum.

A plague upon your ignorance to the great despare of your coniving minds..

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