Making history | Monocle

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Established: 1852
Location: Blythe House
Permament collection: 2.3 million

The Victoria and Albert Museum has amassed a fascinatingly disparate collection. Its vast store – Blythe House, a former Post Office facility in west London – is a trove of Parisian eveningwear, sections of ceilings dating to the 14th century, poison-tipped arrowheads from Madras and slogan- emblazoned scarves worn by the suffragettes, among many other things. But there’s a problem: the archive itself is no longer fit for purpose and isn’t really accessible to the public.

“Blythe House is not very practical for things like environment and floor loading,” says Heather Caven, the V&A’s director of conservation and collections management. “Some of the basics are missing: research facilities, creative studios and space for school children.”

The ambition is to move the facility to a new collections centre on the site of the 2012 Olympics in east London within four years. Cue the biggest logistical operation of the institution’s history: 250,000 objects, 350,000 antique books and 1,000 archival collections must be delicately decanted, catalogued and boxed for the trip across town. Caven is tasked with leading a small army of experts and volunteers to get the job done.

“We’ve put together what we call the ‘Blexit’ manual, measured every door and timed how long it takes to get from each part of the building to the outside loading areas,” she says. “We moved in over the course of decades and we’re going to move out in a very condensed period of time.”

Heather Caven
Director of conservation and collections management

This isn’t the first time that Caven has orchestrated a mass decant of historical objects from one place to another. Her last job was head of collection services at National Museums Scotland where she oversaw a similar move – although, she concedes, not quite on the same scale. Working in museums for 18 years, she gained renown for her tenure at London’s National Maritime Museum as project manager of the collection review programme.

  1. Katherine Morley Project archives assistant. “Has non-stop enthusiasm about our archive project.”
  2. James McNeff Museum technician. “One of the first decant techs. Knows Blythe House inside out.”

  3. Sarah Belanger Project archivist. “Responsible for ensuring everything goes through logging and barcoding.”

  4. Nicola Daughtry Security project manager. “Our eyes and ears on the ground.”

  5. Alexandra Strachan V&A East collections storage and installation planning manager. “An amazing brain for playing storage Jenga.”

  6. Charlotte Hazeldine Photographer. “Charlotte has a brilliant eye and passion for objects.”

  7. Amel Earle Project technical team manager. “Amel seems to be everywhere at one time.”

  8. Ruby Hodgson Collections move team manager. “Unflappable, always smiling. At the heart of the decant team.”

  9. Isobel Harcourt Textile conservator. “Masterminding a safe furniture collection move.”

  10. Matthew Abel Collections move officer. “He is attention to detail personified.”

  11. Ekta Raheja Collections move officer. “Passionate and brilliantly committed.”

  12. Suzanne Smith Clothworkers’ centre manager. “Suzanne is knowledgeable, kind and unflappable.”

  13. Federica Camisani Calzolari Blythe House decant project administrator. “Ensures that all aspects of decant planning are aligned.”

  14. Glenn Benson Site manager. “Mr Blythe House.”

  15. Ruth de Wynter Project archivist. “Makes sure that the archive is in order before we move.”

  16. David Gilligan Museum technician. “Calm under pressure. Everything you need in a technician.”

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