Search our site
Search our site

Ms Laura Elliott

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


The influence of London's South Kensington Museum (1857-1899) on America's burgeoning museum culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, has been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. Little if anything however, is known about how this developed in the early twentieth century, after the Museum was renamed the "Victoria and Albert" in 1899. This also marked a new definition of the Museum, which saw the former Department of Science and Art separate to form two distinct museums: a new science museum and the V&A, which was dedicated solely to art for the first time in its history. This thesis aims to address this deficit in knowledge by analysing largely untapped archival sources of the V&A's correspondences with museums in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, in which they exchanged educational resources, collections and ideas on gallery display techniques and aesthetics. Focussing on the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, it argues these exchanges proved influential to the V&A's redevelopment and ‘modernization' after the Second World War. Museum modernization is a key concept in describing the ideas and intentions behind the physical alterations the Museum underwent and changes to its collections: the taxonomic classificatory structure and shifting position on science, and the relationship between this and the arts.  

 Analysis of exchanges between the V&A in London and MoMA in New York, yields their own brands and terms of art, as well as gallery display aesthetics. They also involve navigation through sometimes radically different artistic terms of reference and approaches to museum development. These are recognised as having been highly influential to art and design history, in which ideas of the "Victorian" and "Modern" are contested and challenged for example, the V&A in 1951 referred to objects made from as early as 1825 as "modern", whereas MoMA used this term within a specific art historical context broadly defined within the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Such shifting definitions are explored against changing power relations between the UK and US which were often tense, where competing cultural institutions either claimed or discredited ideas of the historic and modern, leading to a co-opting and/or appropriation of national models (Serge Guilbaut 1985). This study therefore, aims to contribute to the histories of the museums both individually, and within a growing body of research on transnational perspectives of museums of modern and contemporary art (J. Pedro Lorente: 2011).


Currently in the third year of my Ph.D. at Kingston where I am studying part time, I also hold an MPhil from the Royal College of Art, and MA from the University of London, and work part-time as Development and Funding Manager for the Youth Club Archive: a unique photographic archive of the UK's diverse youth culture from the 1950s to the present.

I came to academia as a mature student (after having worked in photographic retail since leaving school aged 16) where I studied Modern World History at the University of Hertfordshire, and gained an upper second-class (2:1) degree with honours. While working in education full-time for Hertfordshire County Council, I went on to gain an MA in Museums and Galleries in Education from the University of London, and began my museum career working for Hertfordshire Museums as Museums Co-coordinator in 2001. From 2003 until 2013, I was Programme Manager of Communities and Public Programmes at the Victoria and Albert (V&A), and was awarded a bursary from the V&A and Royal College of Art to study for my MPhil which I gained in 2009. My research of the history of the V&A in the twentieth century, and its changing relationship with contemporary art and audiences for this, led to me joining the Research faculty and Post-1900 Expertise Group. I am also a member of the Design History Society and William Morris Society.

My research of "museum modernization" has mainly focused on the V&A: its redevelopment and changing relationship with science and industrial art and design in the twentieth century. My Ph.D. explores the Museum's search for a new museological definition in the first half of the twentieth century, across the Atlantic and the burgeoning contemporary art museum scene in the United States, focusing on the Fogg art museum in Harvard and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

Areas of research interest

  • Museums of art and design from the nineteenth century to present.
  • Museum redevelopment and modernisation.
  • Transatlantic and transnational exchanges in museum development and modernisation.
  • The history of decoration.
  • The history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, its changing relationship with art, science and industry in the twentieth century.
  • Youth and subculture history in the UK from 1950 to the present.
  • Archives- new methodologies, technical advances and challenges.


  • 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. 

Site menu