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Meet our new Head of Collections

Published 12 October 2015

In the first of a new blog series, our incoming Head of Collections explores his new stomping grounds – the RA’s jewel-like library, print room and archive.

  • In my first two weeks, I’ve been discovering the academy’s print room, library and archive, which I’ll be overseeing. I have a feeling that not enough people know about these spectacular little rooms, which you enter through a small door next to the Sackler Galleries (where Cornell was just deinstalled, and Liotard is soon to take his place).

    They are rather astonishing. All three are tiny given their function, packed floor to ceiling with books, archives or works on paper. From the dazzling whiteness of the Sackler foyer, you enter the elegant dark space of the print room, with black walls and cupboards filled with boxes of prints. There’s a small public display area and then you descend some stairs, on the way to the perfectly formed library – currently also home to white, a project curated by Edmund de Waal.

    With the dark-painted walls and cupboards, chrome lights and mirrors giving repeating reflections, these spaces combine 19th-century and 1970s aesthetics – beautifully refitted to a design by HT Cadbury-Brown in the 1990s (but I hope he wouldn’t mind me saying the look is more that of an earlier decade). You are on the second floor here, but it feels somehow cosily subterranean.

    The library is where people come to view things (by appointment, more info here) – and marvellously for researchers, they can study books, prints and archive items at once; a real rarity as most other organisation’s art, archive and library collections have gone their separate ways and are often even in separate buildings. Our archive contains intriguing records and documents dating back to the foundation of the RA in 1768, with some fascinating letters by Academicians (the letter below was sent to the President by Angelica Kauffman RA in 1775).

  • On my first visit, a couple of months ago, my charming guide was Nick Savage, the retiring director of collections, who will be a tough act to follow. Thanks to decades of housekeeping and scholarly work by Nick and his colleagues, the collection is now well stored and properly inventoried, with vast amounts of it accessible online and more things being added all the time (follow our Tumblr).

    It’d be tempting to take over Nick’s desk in the print room, surrounded by the towering cupboards full of works on paper – with members of the public regularly popping in to enjoy and study things, constantly reminding you that a collection exists to be used by people. But I fear my future will be more open plan, as my work will be more as an administrator and manager than as a cataloguer and researcher, although I’m making a commitment to myself to spend at least six hours a week getting to know the collection, with my new colleagues.

    Nick told me that before he took up post, he dreamt that Cadbury-Brown’s repeating mirrors were actually a rare book library that went on for ever and ever and ever. I’ll report on any RA dreams I have in a future blog.

    Maurice Davies is Head of Collections at the RA. Follow him on Twitter @mauricewdavies