Nicola Stylianou

Completed PhD - Producing and collecting for Empire: African textiles within the V&A Museum


Tunisian sash, c. 1850; Silk brocaded with silk and metal thread

Bought by The V&A from the Great Exhibition of 1851 as part of the Museum's initial collection

Despite billing itself as “the world’s greatest museum of art and design, with collections unrivalled in their scope and diversity” during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century it was the V&A’s general policy not to collect African artefacts. This was largely due to a curatorial division between objects associated with “art” and “ethnography.” During the nineteenth century African objects were seen as being of ethnographic rather than artistic interest and were therefore not actively collected by the V&A, a museum of art and design. However, a large number of objects from or relating to Africa have come into the V&A’s collection, across all departments, since the museums inception.

Focusing on one the collecting and display history of the textiles departments in the context of imperialism and post-colonialism, the aim of the research is to understand the scope and nature of African textiles within the museum; the reasons for their acquisition, their shifting status and their contemporary cultural value. From Tunisian garments to export textiles produced in Manchester for West African markets a wealth of items have been identified whose presence demands further explanation and interpretation.

This is a collaborative PhD between the V&A and TrAIN. As part of the collaborative process this research offers the opportunity not only to study the V&A’s African textiles in depth but also to make contributions to a broader HLF funded project focused on increasing the relevance of the V&A’s collections to diverse audiences.

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