Set in Stone

1053 V&A Blitz damage sign 3 Jun 2010

This essay was written as part of a workshop entitled ‘Writing London’ during my candidacy for a Masters degree in Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art in 2011.

In 1985 a Canadian man named Leo Heaps wrote a letter to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The letter, now housed in the museum’s archives, told of one of his frequent visits to the museum when Mr Heaps had overheard some tourists talking. The group was dismayed to find a wall on the western façade of the building in a state of disrepair. The wall to which they referred was the screen of Portland stone, part of architect Aston Webb’s neo-classical scheme for the museum, designed for a competition held by the Office of Works during 1890 and later realised in 1901. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the wall on Exhibition Road was decrepit. Chunks of stone were missing from its surface; it was chipped and its horizontal seams were interrupted by pock marks. The wall was damaged in a way which in the view of the tourists was not becoming to the world’s leading museum of decorative arts.

An institution essentially dedicated to the significance of material objects which it had acquired and catalogued as a symbol of Britain’s imperial power, the Victoria & Albert Museum had always been scrupulous about its own preservation, so much so that in July of 1941 it had received another letter. This one was from Jack Pierpoint Morgan asking for advice on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and of the library named after him as to how to go about safeguarding their collections in the event of war.

The idea that cultural artefacts have value and warrant protection came about during the Enlightenment. The Victoria and Albert Museum accordingly took the job of protecting its treasures very seriously during the Second World War. When approached about the possibility of the museum providing refuge for people in that period — for children evacuated from Gibraltar — the director Sir Eric Maclagan saw it as an imposition. Only begrudgingly did he allow the Royal Air Force to use the museum as a canteen. He still maintained ‘it ought not to be allowed’.

By April 1939, the museum was involved in highly-organised operations topreserve its contents. Internal reports and memorandums belonging to themuseum show that it was considering the detail of air raid procedures as early as November 1938. Plans were also afoot to secure the basement on the eastern side of the building as a strong room. Architectural plans specify ceilings to be reinforced with steel, windows to be bricked in and provision to be made for air locks, fire hoses and a first aid room. Meanwhile detailed inventories were made by every museum department dividing the collection into four categories. Marked ‘secret’, they listed portable objects to be removed to the new bomb-proof store, larger and heavier non-perishable objects to be stored in Aldwych underground station and perishable and fragile objects such as carpets and textiles which were to be transported to an unidentified location in the West of England (later revealed to be Montecute House in Somerset). Items which could not be moved were to be protected in situ with sandbagging and asbestos. When this actually occurred the activity was documented in photographs.

When the war did come to London, the Victoria and Albert Museum was repeatedly hit during the Blitz. Each bomb blast was conscientiously recorded and typed up by the warder on duty. On the 15th of October 1940 the warder wrote:

I beg to report that at approx 2.30am this morning a shower of incendiary bombs were scattered by enemy air craft over the whole of this area. Two fell on the museum. The first came through the glass roof of room 76 in the library and fell against a bookcase just inside the office door of the room occupied by Miss Armatage and Miss Finnis.

The report of November 7th reads:

at 8.45pm a high-explosive bomb fell in the Refreshment Room yard a few feet from the Circulation Department, Western Gallery. Much window glass was broken and about 20 framed paintings resting against the wall were overturned or slightly moved and in six of them the glass was broken, but no painting was scratched or otherwise damaged.

During the period of the Blitz, other bombs were logged ‘in the large room of Mr Willcock’s flat’,‘in the Imperial Institute ground close to the Indian Section,’ and ‘close to the entrance door of the Royal College of Art’, to name but a few. Then on one particular night the logs attest:

The museum suffered considerable damage. Two powerful bombs hit in the vicinity on Exhibition Road. It has practically wrecked the west side of the museum. The surface of the masonry was badly knocked about and the Exhibition Road doors were blown in. Practically all windows, frames and iron grilles were destroyed and we have lost most of the glass roofing on that side of the museum.

Whilst the museum had remained open during the war to boost public morale — often exhibiting reproductions — after this particular incident, the museum was forced to close for a few days to clean up the mess. The wall on Exhibition Road, however, which was damaged by the impact, was never repaired. To this day it bears the material trace of one moment. In an age when wars are often communicated in distant images: in those akin to simulated video games, to visions of the sublime or of the exotic other, the holes in the wall are literally concrete embodiments of history and the realities of warfare.

In 1985, retired from the air-force himself, Leo Heaps knew that the state of the Portland screen was not a product of neglect. He did not, however, want there to be room for any misunderstanding. In his letter to the Victoria and Albert Museum he offered to pay for the chinks in the wall on Exhibition Road to be explained to the public in the form of a plaque. To do this the museum enlisted the help of calligrapher David Kindersley. Kindersley decided against the addition of a plaque to the masonry. He opted rather to carve directly intoits surface. He strategically manoeuvered text around a gash left by the bomb blast. Appropriate wording was discussed and out of sensitivity to the Goethe Institute down the road and to the post-war international climate specific references to Germany were deleted. With resonances of a classical inscription, the resulting text reads in seriffed capital letters:

The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the Blitz of the Second World War 1939-1945 and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.

Thus a monument was born. With the addition of a caption, a derelict wall was transformed. The text invested the stone with an aura, and disrepair was immediately transmuted into the romance of decay. The forensic trace of one instant was incorporated into the collective memory. The relic of one moment was imbued with the connotations of an epic event. A hole became an index ofone nation’s grand narrative. And the rest, as they say is History.

References

Charlotte Benton, “’An Insult to Everything a Museum Stands for’ or

‘Ariadne’s Thread’ to ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Inspiration’? Daniel Libeskind’s

Extension for the V & A and its Context. Part II”, Journal of Design History (vol. 10 no. 3 1997, pp. 309–28)

Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War(Reaktion Books: London, 2006)

Rose Macauley, Pleasure of Ruins, (Thames and Hudson: London, 1984)

John Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum: The History of itsBuilding (Victoria and Albert Museum: London, 1982)

Katrina Royall, “History of the V & A: V & A at War 1939–45” http:/www.vam.ac.uk/periods_styles/features/history

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