Politics and Narrative Agency in the History of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Authored by: Linda Sandino

The Routledge International Handbook on Narrative and Life History

Print publication date:  October  2016
Online publication date:  October  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138784291
eBook ISBN: 9781315768199
Adobe ISBN: 9781317665717


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While undertaking research in the archives of the William Morris Society [WMS] on the background to a story that forms the core of my chapter here, I came across a lecture delivered to the Society in 1959 by the great socialist historian E. P. Thompson. In it he praised the late nineteenth century craftsman, design reformer, and poet as a ‘great moral teacher’, whose ‘greatness [came] to its full maturity in the political writing and example of his later years’. In relation to my research the most significant and thought provoking observation was Thompson’s:

feeling that perhaps through fear of controversy and out of respect for admirers of William Morris who do not share his political convictions – this Society has tended to be reticent on this matter. But Morris was one of our greatest men, because he was a great revolutionary, a profoundly cultured and humane revolutionary, but not the less a revolutionary for this reason. Moreover, he was a man working for practical revolution. It is this which brings the whole man together.

(Thompson, 1959, 1994, pp. 66–7) Anxiety about controversy, reticence about politics, a conviction about the value of culture in bringing about social change, as well as how all these qualities make up the ‘whole’ person resonated with my work on left-wing museum staff working in the Circulation Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) in London in the mid-twentieth century. The figure of William Morris (1834–1896) will play an important role in the account that is to follow as I explore how a narrative can become unexpectedly ‘political’ since initially the Circulation Department’s politics were not at the forefront of my research into the history of curating at the Museum. Unlike explicitly political research (for example Andrews, 1991, 2007; Selbin, 2010), the focus of the V&A project is not ‘politics’, so the discovery of communist party memberships and allegiances shed a different light, a counter-narrative, to the collections-centred, art and design history of curating and museum scholarship (Baker & Richardson, 1999).

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