Stripped Down: Fisun Guner Discovers a Secret Side to the Victoria and Albert Museum

New Statesman (1996), May 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

Stripped Down: Fisun Guner Discovers a Secret Side to the Victoria and Albert Museum


The Concise Dictionary of Dress

Blythe House, London W14

Blythe House is an impressive building. A vast, Victorian, red-brick monolith that looks like a former asylum, it once housed the HQ. of the Post Office Savings Bank. Within these walls, 7,000 clerks worked in gender-separated units, processing thousands of savings transactions a day. It is now a museum outpost, housing the reserve collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Imagine spending the night here--you can almost sense the ghosts stirring as you walk through the turnstile.

Visitors to the latest installation, commissioned by the visual arts group Artangel, don't get to spend the night, but the place makes itself felt nonetheless. Upon entry, there's a tiny stripping away of identity: in a small, shabby office with plastic chairs, you are first security-checked, then you have your photo taken for a pass. You are then asked to leave your bag and mobile phone. Then you wait to join a tour led by an Artangel guide, who will tell you that you must leave questions to the end.

Artangel has been behind some ambitious projects, the best known of which is the plaster cast of an east London house made by the sculptor Rachel Whiteread in 1993. The Artangel team excel as location scouts, and visitors to their exhibitions have found themselves in some interesting places over the years. It might be a disused building, some vast echoing warehouse, say, or a tucked-away architectural gem, quite possibly on the fringes of the city.

For "The Concise Dictionary of Dress", we find ourselves a short walk from the Kensington Olympia branch of the District Line--where trains rarely seem to go. It is co-curated by the dress curator Judith Clark and the psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips. Like many of Artangel's projects, it has taken a long time to realise--about two years, in fact, from conception to birth. A long gestation, yes, but it certainly starts with a bang. After ascending in an industrial lift, weaving our way through a corridor and up again via a spiralling staircase, we are led out through a small door and on to the roof, squinting into the sun.

It takes a while to stop marvelling at the panoramic view of London, but we are eventually directed to a cupola. …

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Stripped Down: Fisun Guner Discovers a Secret Side to the Victoria and Albert Museum
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