Laura Elliott

Research project: Modernising the Victoria and Albert Museum: Transatlantic Exchanges in Museum Development from 1900 to 1955


The influence of the V&A's paradigmatic antecedent, the South Kensington Museum (1857-1899), on North America's burgeoning museum culture in the late 19th century, has been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. However, little is known about how this relationship developed after it was renamed the "Victoria and Albert" (V&A) in 1899. Yet, in the first half of the 20th century the V&A radically diverged from its 19th century modernity and mission to improve the artistic products of modern industry through broad public education. The movement instead passed to America where the idea of the modern museum continued to evolve. My thesis aims to address this deficit in knowledge by building on insights from current literature in museum and art and design history, and on largely unpublished archival evidence of exchanges: staff visits, collections loans and correspondences relating to museum development. Analysis yields significant new knowledge and interpretation of how the V&A's relationship with America's museums evolved; although continuing to serve as an important model to the latter, the V&A also increasingly looked to America's museums for new ideas on arrangement, display and public education. 

Museum modernization is a key concept in describing the ideas and intentions behind the physical alterations the V&A underwent and changes to the arrangement of its collections and display. Analysis of exchanges between the V&A and America's leading museums, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Fogg in Harvard, the Met and MoMA in New York, yields their own terms and brands of art evident in display aesthetics. Such shifting definitions are diachronically explored against changing power relations between Britain and America which were often tense, where competing ideas of the historic and modern are seen to have led to a co-opting and/or appropriation of national models (Serge Guilbaut 1985). This study, therefore, aims to contribute to the growing body of research on transnational perspectives of museums of modern and contemporary art (Andrew McClellan: 2008; J. Pedro Lorente: 2011).

  • Research degree: PhD
  • Title of project: Modernising the Victoria and Albert Museum: Transatlantic Exchanges in Museum Development from 1900 to 1955
  • Research supervisor: Dr Jana Scholze
  • Other research supervisors:


Currently in the fifth year of my Ph.D. at Kingston (part time), my research of the 20th century history of the V&A began while working as Programme Manager in widening audiences at the Museum (2003-2013). During this time the Museum generously supported my MPhil which I received from the Royal College of Art in 2009, and I became a member of the Museum's Post-1900 Expertise Group. I also hold an MA in Museum Studies from the institute of Education, University of London.

I am founder and owner of London Academic Services, a unique provider of fundraising and development for not-for profit organisations and charities in the arts sector. I am also a Director of the DANAD Design Foundation which works to preserve, educate and share the heritage design archive of DANAD Design (1958-1962) of important early works by leaders of Britain's Pop art and Abstract Expressionist movements, Tom Adams, Sir Peter Blake, Bernard Cohen, Robyn Denny, Barry Daniels and Edward Wright, see:

Areas of research interest

  • Museums of art and design from the nineteenth century to present.
  • Museum rearrangement and modernisation.
  • Transatlantic and transnational activities concerning inter-museum loans of collections, staff visits and study trips, correspondences.
  • The history of decoration in transition from the 19th century to the mid-20th century
  • The history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, its changing relationship with art, science and industry in the twentieth century.
  • Museums and galleries in exhibiting International art in transition from colonial to post-colonialism.
  • Archives- new methodologies, technical advances and challenges.
  • Subcultural history from the 1950s to present


  • MPhil in the History of Design and Material Culture, Royal College of Art
  • MA in Museums and Galleries in Education, Institute of Education, University of London
  • Post Graduate Certificate of Education, Institute of Education, University of London
  • BA Honours Degree: 2: 1, Modern World History, University of Hertfordshire

Funding or awards received

  • Kingston University Bursary (2016-present)
  • Royal College of Art Bursary


Conference papers

'Redefining the V&A, the Modern Art Collections and their Discontents: 1900-1910', paper presented to the Research Symposium, Modern Interiors Research Centre, Dorwich House, Kingston, 30th January 2019

'Connecting Diasporas: Anglo American Museum Culture Explored in 1935 and 1955', paper presented to the conference: ‘Seamed by its own bitter juice': Voice, Visibility, Literacies, Centre for Caribbean Diaspora Studies, The Knowledge Centre, British Library, London.

'The V&A and Transatlantic Exchanges in Modern Art and Design: 1900-1951', paper presented to the conference: 'Unpacking the Archive: Methodologies and Challenges in Design History', Royal College of Art, 24 March 2017

'Modernising the V&A: from War to Reconstruction: 1918-1951', paper presented to the Design History Society Conference: Design for War and Peace, 4-6 September 2014.

'Modernising the V&A 1945-1951', paper presented at the V&A research symposium, 2013.