This paper derives from research undertaken for my MA (History of Design) dissertation: ‘Ceramics as ‘applications of geology’, an exploration of the collection of the Museum of Practical Geology, c. 1835-1860’ (RCA/V&A, 2016).
Prior to and after returning to academia, I have worked at various times as a consultant, an auction house specialist and a curator specialising in ceramics and glass. This included a period in the Ceramics and Glass Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, an experience which prompted me to investigate the origins of a substantial group of objects in the museum’s collection, of which nothing was known before their transfer from the ‘Jermyn Street Collection’ in 1901.
I was recently elected Chair of the Glass Circle, a group dedicated to the study, research and enjoyment of glass.
Glass as applications of geology: selecting glass for London’s new Museum of Practical Geology, c. 1840-1860
Susan Newell, independent researcher
The government gave the newly-formed Geological Survey permission to establish a museum in 1835 and from 1851 onwards this occupied purpose-built premises in Jermyn Street in London. The Director of the Survey, Henry De la Beche (1796-1855), and his successors, set out to form a comprehensive collection of British geological specimens and objects, including glass, that demonstrated their use in industry. The object collection so formed was transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1901.
This paper approaches glass at the intersection of related fields of nineteenth-century historical studies, principally those of collecting, museum and science education. I will draw on original research in the archives of the British Geological Survey (Keyworth, Nottinghamshire) and other sources to highlight glass in the national collection of decorative art and design at the V&A today with the surprising provenance of an institution dedicated to geology.
Glass in the Museum of Practical Geology featured a wide range of items, including early Venetian luxury items, Victorian window glass, ancient glass mosaic tesserae and display items from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Selected pieces will be used as case studies to interrogate the notion of their acquisition as purely ‘applications of geology’, while others will highlight the scope of the collection and consider why it was remarkable for its time. As a coda, I will discuss the fate of some items during the first half of the twentieth century when they were dispersed from the V&A’s collections.
All photos © The Victoria and Albert Museum, London