My heart sank when I first read the news. Earlier this month the Observer reported that the V&A, as part of a proposed ‘restructuring’ of its curatorial departments intended to reduce costs by £10m a year, would be conducting a ‘root-and-branch review’ of the National Art Library (NAL). The library would remain closed for a further 12 months while this review was conducted, with only 10 of 30 staff members retained to ‘support the NAL’s activity during this period of transition’. Immediately I remembered the faces of the many kind and helpful people who have listened so patiently to my pedantic enquiries over the years. Despite the probable futility, I signed an online petition. This week, however, V&A director Tristram Hunt announced a change in plans: the closure will now last six months while a ‘senior librarian consultant’ reviews the NAL’s services, and all 30 of the library’s staff will keep their jobs while the review takes place. But the future of the library remains uncertain.
The ‘UK’s leading art and design research library’ (the V&A’s words) has seen constant change throughout its history, and of course to survive the NAL must continue to adapt. Predating the museum itself, the library was originally part of the Government School of Design founded at Somerset House in 1837, which aimed at educating the nation, ‘especially the manufacturing population’, in art and design. The school and its library moved to Marlborough House alongside the new Museum of Manufactures in 1852 (the same year that Ralph Wornum, future Keeper of the National Gallery, was appointed as the first full-time librarian), before eventually transferring to South Kensington with the opening of the current museum site in 1857 (the school was rechristened the Royal College of Art in 1896, and expanded out of the museum in the 1960s). Initially located near the entrance on Cromwell Road, the library was central to Henry Cole’s idea of a museum as a ‘book with its pages always open’.
In 1855 Wornum had catalogued the collection using the same 30 categories applied to objects in the Great Exhibition, integrating the library with the organisation of the museum. However, after it was renamed and elevated to the National Art Library in 1865 it gained an independent identity and new significance, and its collections grew significantly. Even today, this makes it more than simply the V&A’s in-house library, although the proposed restructure (which has not been withdrawn) would merge it with the V&A Research Institute and Archives as one ‘centralised’ department.
While the library’s various functions, typical users, and collection policies may have varied over its long history, its appearance has remained relatively unchanged. The reading rooms were built between 1876 and 1884, and their architecture and furnishings have survived almost intact, aside from necessary renovations such as the introduction of a large, curving library service counter in 1966. Their current location and layout are visible on the ‘Plan of New Buildings’ drawn up by Francis Fowke in 1865: on the first floor, reached by a grand staircase, and overlooking the museum’s inner quadrangle from the south side. The interior decorations may be less opulent than intended by their designer Reuben Townroe, but they make the NAL an attractive, popular location for photographers and cinematographers in search of the spectacle of a scholarly Victoriana. This heady, historical atmosphere is also part of the reason I and so many other scholars and students love to work here.
Now it appears to have attracted the attention of the V&A’s senior management team. ‘We will open the NAL Reading Room to a broader public,’ says a V&A internal document, ‘creating a “Reading Room of the Arts”, a space to study, read or pause, surrounded by the magnificent historic collections of the nation’s foremost art library.’ I think it might be more honest to write the nation’s former art library. One museum insider, in the Observer’s report, expressed confusion at the idea of opening up access, given that the library is already open to everybody. However, it’s easy to read between the lines and work out who is being sidelined, as management reassure us all they will be ‘retaining a Special Collections Study Room for scholars and researchers’. No longer will the NAL be an ivory tower, accessible only to an intellectual or cultural elite (even though it isn’t that now). Rather, all museumgoers will be encouraged to visit – not just to study, but to ‘pause’. In other words, it will cease to function as a library proper.
Admittedly I am extremely partisan. There is a certain selfishness, I suppose, in wanting to retain the privilege of studying in such rarefied surroundings. But more importantly, for scholars such as myself, the NAL has been an invaluable resource. Two of my research projects are intricately connected with the NAL’s collections and archives. There can’t be many libraries, for instance, with a complete run of The Connoisseur magazine (1901–92), Apollo’s erstwhile competitor. It takes a specialist library to continue niche activities such as collecting contemporary trade literature, and one wonders which roots and which branches precisely are set for the chop. My work on the Anglo-Italian connoisseurial partnership of Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle is the result of hours spent in the library, surveying their extensive archival holdings. With the physical reduction in space, and presumably much more limited access to the ‘Special Collections Study Room’, any eventual retrenchment will inevitably result in a limiting of the external research the library facilitates and inspires.
When I take students to the V&A (or rather took; it feels like a lifetime ago already), I always begin on Cromwell Road in front of Aston Webb’s imposing entrance, detailing the museum’s history and drawing their attention to the gilded words of Joshua Reynolds above the main entrance: ‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose’. I then ask them to reflect on what the museum’s ‘purpose’ is, and whether they feel it has been accomplished. Henry Cole pronounced that the museum should act as a ‘schoolroom for everyone’, and ‘to educate’ is always one of the first answers the students give. Will we still be able to say this if the library ceases being a space to learn, and instead becomes a place to pause? From the outside, it feels like its educational function is on the verge of abandonment, and what the economic imperative demands is entertainment.
Luke Uglow is a lecturer in 19th-century art at the University of York.