12 July 2013

Day 21 - London: National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Today we headed out to visit the National Art Library at the V&A (http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/n/national-art-library/), which is one of the top four art libraries in the world. Their strength is in the range and depth of their collections, because it is not solely related to just the V&A but to all aspects of art. With over one million items in total, it is a wide ranging collection. The three main functions of the library are: 1) to be a leading art reference library, 2) to act as a research library for the V&A staff, and 3) to collect books as art in their own right. The library is closed access, meaning everything must be requested but it is open to the public to visit, seeing 30,000 visitors a year. This is the reading room which was quite full by the time we left:
The library began in 1837, in Somerset House, as a library for arts and crafts students. In 1851 the Great Exhibition encouraged interest in the arts and it was from this that the V&A formed. In 1884 the library moved in with the V&A and they were the first section of the museum designed for electricity. One part the library is currently being used as a gallery for 20th century works, which helps to let the public know that a library is on site:
I found it interesting that once again this is a library which to maximize space shelves items by size, not by any conventional system but their own. It was also nice to hear that they work with other leading libraries in London to coordinate so they don't duplicate items. With such a large collection, it is important to be selective in what items you accession, especially because all collections are stored on site, with the exception of the children's collection. 

My favorite part of the visit was when we were brought into a room to look at special items from the collection. We were given a brief talk on handling items, as the library staff are trained every eighteen months on object handling, and then after an explanation of the history of the items, we were allowed to look at them up close.
Of course my favorite item was from 1400, a Book of Hours from Paris which was illuminated and amazing to touch something 600 years old and still so beautiful with vibrant colors:
There was also a really neat book object, created by the artist Genevieve Seille in 1990 from an old desk, which she then carved random letters and numbers into. There were compartments to open and things to pull out, so it was an interactive art piece:
Many libraries create facsimiles of either fragile items or items which are popular requests, to help conserve the original. The first facsimile I ever saw was during my internship at Brandeis and the detail just blew me away; this facsimile of a Da Vinci codex was also so detailed and looked like it could've been the original, which was from around 1493-1505. The surrogate copy was also worth £20,000 so you can imagine the worth of the original!
After our visit, I stayed at the V&A and explored a small section of the museum. It is definitely high tourist season, and on a hot day in an un-airconditioned museum, it's hard to stay for very long! Luckily you don't feel like you have to get your moneys worth since the museums are free. Then I went next door to visit the Natural History Museum and see dinosaurs:
I ended the gorgeous day with a stroll along the South Bank; if I ever had a chance to live in London, I'm pretty sure I would want to live in this area. We are totally being spoiled with perfect weather - sunny and mid to high 70s every day since the first day the class started; I have a feeling we might end up paying for this in Scotland!

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