10th March 2021
The Circulation Department
I began to explore the museum as a force of deterritorialization in relation to objects, people, and collections, in a series if activities and objects, The Circulating Department (2021). The focus of my residency was on movement and the museum: the activities of transportation, protecting, cleaning, conserving; object acquisition and disposal; and the activities taken to control and manage the insects and moths that threaten the V&A collection. Much of my initial research focused on the Circulation Department, which existed until its closure in 1977. The history and ethos of the Circulation Department gave me a way to explore and consider how objects move in relation to the V&A itself. The origins of the Circulation Department can be traced to 1850, when travelling collections of works of art established by Central School of Design, Somerset House, were lent on rotation to provincial schools. It was the first ever ‘travelling gallery’ in the UK; it loaned both original works and copies to provincial and national museums, libraries, and galleries, art schools and schools. I have been particularly interested in photographs that recorded the activities and people who worked in the department; it had a higher than usual intake of women and art school educated staff. Some were also members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Much of my initial research at the V&A has been on the Circulation Department, which existed from the 1850s until its closure in 1977. The history and ethos of the Circulation Department provides a way of thinking through movement and objects in relation to the V&A. The origins of the Circulation Department can be traced to 1850 when travelling collection works of art established by Central School of Design Somerset House were lent on rotation to provincial schools. In 1852 a ‘Circulating Museum’ was created where 600 objects were sent in specially created railway truck around the country. Over 4 years it was seen by 307,000 people. The second Circulating Museum in 1860 involved 900 objects and was seen by 429,000 people.
Some notes I made at the Archives in Blythe House:
Prefix ‘Circ’ operated from temporary exhibition space beyond Room 38A
Origins CD traced back to 1850 when travelling collection works of art established by Central School of Design Somerset House lent rotation of works to provincial schools.
In 1852 the CD conceived the ‘Circulating Museum’ where 600 objects were sent in specially created railway truck. Over 4 years it was seen by 307,000 people. The second Circulating Museum in 1860 involved 900 objects seen by 429,000 people.
In 1870s Museums and Galleries were expanded into the Circulation Department.
The linking factor is that all the objects must be transportable.
The name was proposed to change to the ‘Department of Education and Regional …’ but was resisted.
Burton, A. ‘Vision and Accident. The Story of the Victoria and Albert Museum’, V&A Publications 1999.
CD 1880s lent to art schools, museums and galleries. 1919 onwards lent to secondary schools.
CD “stressed its special interest in the contemporary”
1959 “The CD has been concerned more than the other Departments with modern work. It attempts to acquire systematically the best of contemporary work in this country and abroad. In this sense it acts as the growth-point of the Museum, and in most of the decorative arts its collections rank as the national collection of the present and of the past hundred years.” (p8, Wakefield and Write, “Circulating Exhibitions (Handbook for Museum Curators” 1959)
The V&A unusual because did not start as a Royal Collection but from a school of design. Govt set up in 1836 result of House of Commons Select Committee on Arts and Manufacture – a pioneer of vocational educations – concern regarding the performance of British export manufacturing goods.
Circulation Department Packing Photos MA/15/37 No. 143
Anonymous Gifts Circulation Department 1972-79 MA/2/A7
Floud, P. Keeper CD 1947-60
David Coachworth 1963-1979 when CD closed
CD Lists of Internal Transfer 1921-78 MA8
Temp transfers from V&A Departments to CD for specific exhibitions MA/8/4/1
Circulation Inventory 1844-1908 MA/9/28
Register of Reproductions 1914-1936 MA/9/2
Archive CD 1967 MA/25/142/1