Behind the scenes at the Museum of London

I think of the Museum of London as our second great gem (after the Victorian and Albert). But whereas the V&A is establishment (royal, no less) the MoL is radical, more working class, more social in its flavour. It is much poorer but also perhaps more accessible, always (to my mind essentially) putting the clothes in context, and always taking an interest in working clothes. So when I got a chance to go behind the scenes with a friend who supports the museum financially I jumped at it. What an absolute treat and privilege.

The website explains:

Clothes began to be collected as soon as the idea of a museum for London became reality in 1911. Until around the 1960s mainly garments from earlier periods were added with the exception of the two World Wars when contemporary collecting took place. The early curators of the museum were aware of the importance of clothes to bring history to life and in 1933 the museum was the first in Britain to publish a catalogue of its costume collection. “Costume is interesting because it is splendid, ridiculous, useful, pompous, dignified, sombre, gay, fantastic – because, in short, it is human. ” REM Wheeler, Keeper and Secretary of the London Museum, 1933

I agree with Mr Wheeler.

Virtually every item is donated, and very few are ever disposed of. They don’t have the resources to buy artifacts and outfits, and they are truly grateful for donations of money and time. If you are in London and want to volunteer they will greet you with open arms.

Beatrice Behlen
Beatrice Behlen

On Thursday we were taken around by Senior Curator, Beatrice Behlen who started her tour by showing us what was on her table. This area is where around 400 students and researchers come each year to see some of the 26,000 exhibits they hold. She showed us first some 17th century prints showing male and female dress, remarking that very few garments survive from the 1600s. She explained how there are a group of people making fascinators based on this period of history and she had got out some small embroidered “misers purses”, many richly beaded or embroidered, including one shaped like a frog.

And in a complete contrast she showed us an outfit they had received in the late 1980s from a woman who provided her trousers, boots, jumper and jacket she had worn as a 14 year old punk. She had a photograph of the young woman, and notes about where she had acquired all the items. And finally, on the table was a wedding dress from the 1940s which had been worn by four brides during and after the second world war. Beatrice explained that she rarely took wedding dresses as they have many, many examples, but this one (made in artificial silk) had beading created by a cousin who worked for Norman Hartnell. She had photographs of all the weddings and the stories associated with it, carefully typed up by the donor on an old-fashioned typewriter. Plus photographs of their vegetable and egg stall in East London.

It became apparent to me that Beatrice was really interested in the context and social history behind the clothes in the collection.

We also learnt quite a lot about storing textiles and clothes.

  • Avoid wood which emits gases that will stain and rot clothes. The yellowing of tissue paper is an indication that this destructive process is occurring. These days the clothes are stored in metal cabinets or acid free cardboard boxes.
  • Avoid light. This will take colour from clothes and rot the fabric.
  • Moths are the other main fiend, so protect your clothes from the devilish little creatures who live off wool, silk and fur.

The most interesting part of our tour was when Beatrice pulled out a lady window cleaners’ outfit from the First World War. The jacket (worn underneath this overall) was very badly faded – it was a yellowy green colour with patches where labels had been attached. The jacket had been on show at the Imperial War Museum for decades and now returned, so she could compare it with the trousers. They were a deep khaki green – a completely different colour. We examined the beautiful construction of the trousers, with good waist shaping and generous pockets. She told me they also owned the “very nice water bucket” too.

Mayfair window cleaner 1WW
1WW window cleaner

We had a look at lots of shoes – military boots, 1970s stacked shoes, fishmongers clogs – all these items had a connection with our capital city although the provenance of the items was varied (“worn by older woman, London”; the consistent piece of information given was the date of acquisition. Lots of hats too – a wide range of top hats of all shapes and sizes and ladies bonnets, not all in the best condition. Beatrice is looking forward to the next intern who will be asked to tackle the ladies hats (a nice job!).

There is a good showing of dresses and suits from well-known English designers like Norman Hartnell and Mary Quant, Tommy Nutter and Hardy Amies. She would like more Vivienne Westwood, but many of her items are very valuable, especially from the punk period.

I had recently read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson where she introduces Kibbo Kift. This 1930s organisation, which provided a less “militaristic” and “royalist” youth organisation than the Scouts, had a range of interesting outfits and banners, a good collection of which had been donated to the Museum. We were shown some of the colourful, handsewn garments and banners that were used. You can definitely appreciate the slightly Soviet influences of the time.

Anyway this is a very worthy and fun Museum and I made a commitment to go more often and to get involved. I am a member at the V&A – I love the building and it has some world-class exhibitions on a monthly basis. But in terms of fashion and costume it is in danger of going for the money rather than the learning – I felt this about the shoes and underwear exhibitions. In contrast the MoL manages to combine social history, local stories and incredible artifacts – for example in this short article on artificial Victorian flowers. 

Thank you Beatrice and David for giving me such a brilliant insight into one of our great costume collections.

10 Responses

  1. BMGM

    Thank-you for introducing me to the MoL. I had not known it existed, but now I want to visit it.

    It reminds me of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History on the UCLA campus. They are as interested in the maker and the context as with the object.

    Part of my job is data curation. We definitely take into account provenance and uniqueness when deciding whether to accept a data set into our collection. Like the MoL, once we accept something, we commit to preserving it forever. That means any work done with the data can be reproduced/checked, because we keep copies of the original data.

    I’m not a fan of museum deaccessioning. I know that it is necessary sometimes. But, there should be clear and open guidelines and procedures. Otherwise, they break the trust with donors.

    • fabrickated

      When the curator said they had too many wedding dresses I wondered why they didn’t sell some and use the proceeds to buy things they wanted but didn’t have. And she said basically what you said about donations and trust. It is a really good point. Thank you.

  2. Sheryll

    You are so lucky to see behind the scenes! The social history of clothing is fascinating – so often fashion history is glamourised, but most people lived in regular clothing and that has an interesting story too.

  3. Lynn Mally

    I love the Museum of London, a must everytime I visit your amazing city. My favorite display from my last visit–a fully decorated suit from a Pearly King. Although I am in general a plain dresser, I still have a secret plan to make a pearly queen jacket inspired by that suit.

  4. Kim Hood

    I am a V&A member too, and despite living in the Midlands I feel I get value from my membership. However, I will definitely be visiting the MoL when I visit in June. Thanks for telling about the museum.
    P.s. I read ‘A God in ruins’ recently and loved it.

  5. SJ Kurtz

    I have not been there in a very long time, and it was great to read about their projects. The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle does a similar job for Seattle, and they are just beginning to sort through the clothes that have been donated over the years.
    You can tell a lot about a place by what they wear and what they save.

    As ever, thanks for this!

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