Elisa Heikkilä:

Wallpapers and woodblocks - Two months at the William Morris Gallery

I applied for the Mobius programme to gain more knowledge for developing the best possible future for the wallpaper collection at the Finnish National Board of Antiquities (NBA). The collection of over 6000 wallpaper fragments has a long history, and currently the future of the collection needs to be planned. I work as a senior researcher at NBA’s Cultural Environment Protection. My main tasks are in heritage protection, concerning mainly built cultural heritage and advising restoration projects concerning listed buildings.

I got the chance to spend my fellowship period at the William Morris Gallery (WMG) in London, and it was a good opportunity to get to know all the impressive work that is done at the gallery, as well as at the Vestry House Museum. During my stay in autumn 2015 I also visited and interviewed two other major wallpaper collections in the UK, Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester.

William Morris Gallery

William Morris (1834-1896) was a designer, craftsman, writer, conservationist and a socialist. The William Morris gallery (WMG) is the only public gallery devoted to him and his lifework.

The gallery was opened in 1950, but the collection runs back to 1913. The gallery is owned and operated by the Waltham Forest Council. The same staff operates the Vestry House Museum of local history. They are both situated in Walthamstow, north-east London. The building of WMG is a Georgian house from the 1740’s at Lloyd Park. Morris’s widowed mother and nine children lived there from 1848-1856. From 1856 to 1885 the publisher Edward Lloyd lived in the house and in 1900 the Lloyd family donated the grounds of the park and house to the borough. In 2011-2012 the building was refurbished and a new extension was built.

Problem solving and inventory at the WMG

As my own project I was given the renumbering and listing of woodblocks used for textile printing. The collection had not been catalogued since it was donated in the 1970s, and the pieces in it were not numbered accurately. An extension housing a new collection store was completed in 2012 and when the items were brought to the new collection store the woodblocks were hard to track. My task was to help in solving this problem, by creating an accurate inventory of the woodblock collection and preparing it for cataloging.

The collection consists of more than 20 different William Morris patterns. For one pattern there can be more than 30 different printing blocks (e.g. “Evenlode”). I photographed the blocks, and in case they were wrongly numbered, renumbered them. During the project it was also discovered that the one of the marks on the side of the blocks is the pattern number, which helps to gather the patterns. Some general remarks of the condition of the blocks were also presented, but no thorough individual condition report was done. The Gallery has no conservator in the staff, so together with the curator Carien Kremer we discussed and compared several Integrated Pest Management (IPM) checklists, and tried them with some rooms. Currently a European standard is being developed for IPM.

Friends and volunteers

Since the “friends of the museums” are not a common and established a concept in Finland yet, it was very interesting to hear about the actions from Roger Huddle about the Friends of William Morris Gallery. The association is a registered private charity trust. The main task for the Friends is to raise money and awareness for the WMG, and they are very successful in both. Over 1 million £ was raised for the refurbishment of the Gallery, and they have members from all over the world. In Finland the public funding for culture is currently being decreased substantially, so organizations like Friends would be needed. The ones existing are not very influential at the moment.

Volunteers play a big role at the gallery. And like the friends, the amount of volunteers and the variety of their tasks is on a whole different level as in Finland. I was able to join one recruiting event for the volunteers, and had a chance to talk to several of them. The amount of good will and time people want to give back to the community is amazing. The way right people are sought for the right positions is probably time consuming, but in the end it truly is a win-win situation.

Education, events, workshops, artist opportunities

Since the refurbishment of the gallery, WGM now has good facilities for workshops. They focus on schools and families, informal learning for adults, young people, volunteers, senior citizens and rehabilitation programs. Local schools can participate in guided tours and object handling sessions. Young curators is a course were anyone aged 16 to 22 can explore museum work for real. They curate an exhibition and get valuable experience and an Arts Award qualification. Creative kids is a free monthly workshop for children aged 0-5 and adults. I was able to join one creative kids session, and it was messy and chaotic, but full of happy kids and adults; parents, volunteers and staff.

For adults the gallery has lectures, late-night events, workshops in arts and crafts, some of them organized by the friends. Cooperation with contemporary artists is also essential, exhibition proposals are welcomed and they also have an Artist in residence programme, where the artists have an opportunity to be inspired by William Morris.

Communications and marketing

WMG and Vestry are both active in social media, newsletters, fundraising and communicating and the campaigns are well carried out. The shop-sales are essential part of the gallery finances and new products are actively looked for and design co-operation is being offered for local artists and heritage brands, with good results. The online shop delivers the products all over the world.

More wallpapers, more museums

To get ideas and practical help for the NBA wallpaper collection, I visited and interviewed two other major wallpaper collections as well, Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London and the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. My approach for the wallpaper collection was multidisciplinary, and therefore I talked to several professionals about the collection caretaking, conservators and curators.

My main questions, which I sent to the professionals in advance, were: • How was the collection developed, do you still collect wallpapers? • Is it fragments from used wallpapers (e. g. demolished buildings) or unused pieces from the manufacturer? • Is the collection listed in a digital database? • If so, does it connect with e.g. databases of listed buildings, photographs or other artefacts? • Are the databases on-line and open for public? • How is the collection valued within your organization? In your collection policy, do you have different categories in it (e.g. in listed buildings different grades), and if so, how do wallpapers fit in there? • Do you collect other building fragments? • Is anyone allowed to visit the collection, how is it accessible? • What do people want to know about the wallpapers? • Do you give advice to people how to preserve wallpapers on-site? • Is the collection stored or on display? • Do you or others use the collection to restore buildings and interiors? • If so, how are the replicas made? • How many people work with the collection? • Storaging, conservation?

In the UK it is not common to have museum and archive databases in connection to others, unlike in Finland and Sweden. See e.g. https://www.finna.fi/?lng=en-gb, http://www.kringla.nu/kringla/ .

Wallpaper collection at WMG

The collection mostly consists of unused rolls and pieces of wallpapers, but also used ones. The collection is in a digital database, and parts of it are available on-line. All the artefacts of the gallery are equally valued in the collection policy. In case new pieces are offered, it will be checked if the same pattern or colour already exists in the collection. They have about 130 wallpapers and about 5-10 of them are on display. Design students sometimes use the collection as inspiration, but otherwise they are not used for restoration projects, because many of the patterns are still manufactured. One curator works with the collection ca 10-15 days a year and they are widely used for marketing purposes as well. The new collection store was built in 2012, and it has good and stable general conditions for all kinds of materials. The shelves and drawers are well suited for the artefacts. In case conservation is needed, they buy the service from private companies.

V&A Wallpaper collection

The Victoria &Albert Museum has collected wallpapers from its foundation in the 1850s. They still collect historical and contemporary wallpapers today, both western and Chinese. They collect fragments from demolished buildings, from surviving buildings, unused samples from manufacturers, pattern books etc.

The collection is in a digital database, and a version of it is online. They are as interested in contemporary wallpaper production, or cheaply printed 19th century ‘sanitary’ wallpapers, as they are in historic wallpapers from listed buildings. Everything they acquire is conserved, stored and documented to the same standards. V&A collects also other building fragments (Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Dept; Sculpture Dept) e.g. wrought iron railings, architectural fittings and even whole interiors from demolished or refurbished buildings. Anyone can visit the collection of western wallpapers, by appointment in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. Chinese wallpapers are held by the Asian Dept and can be seen by appointment at the V&A’s stores at Blythe House.

People want to know about their own wallpapers – date, designer, manufacturer, if it is possible to buy the same design today etc. Many different questions are asked about the wallpapers in the V&A collections, depending on what the enquirer is interested in or working on.

Conservation staff gives advice to people on how to preserve wallpapers on-site, and can give contact details for private conservators. Sometimes, if the wallpaper is counted valuable for the collection, they might rescue the wallpaper from the site before demolition or refurbishments.

Some wallpapers are on display. Designers use the collection to restore buildings and interiors and replicas are sometimes made, depends on the project and the resources available.

Only one curator works directly with the collection, but she has many other responsibilities. There are two stores at the V&A’s South Kensington site, where wallpapers are stored in rolls, in frames and in drawers and boxes. Further rolled and framed wallpapers are stored at Blythe House.

Wallpapers at the Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth art gallery is part of the University of Manchester. They have a large collection of wallpapers (more than 5000 examples) from the 17th century to the present day. The core collections for the gallery are formed by art, textiles and wallpapers. They also collect modern wallpapers designed by well-known artist, such as Niki de Saint Phalle and Damien Hirst.

A bulk of the collection was donated by The Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd in 1967. The collection has then grown by gifts and purchases. Currently they collect with consideration. They have both fragments from used wallpapers and unused pieces from the manufacturer and pattern books. It is mainly European and particularly UK wallpapers.

The collection is listed in a digital database on the gallery website, and they provide a lot of useful information about the pieces. There is ongoing work with volunteers and interns to digitise all of the collection to make more colour images available online. Part of the collection is on display. Seven curators and two conservators work in the museum, one of the curators is in charge of the wallpaper collection among other responsibilities. In the new gallery enlargement, opened in 2014, they have good premises and study rooms for researchers. The collection store is in the new part of the building as well, and it has good conditions and fittings for different kinds of wallpaper artefacts. Many of them are in rolls, fragments in drawers and shelves, partly framed and some pattern books in boxes.

Wallpaper collection at NBA

The National Board of Antiquities in Finland (NBA) has a building fragment collection with an impressive amount of wallpapers. Objects such as wooden roof shingles and bricks have been collected since 1870’s, first by Finnish Antiquarian Society, later to be the State Archeological Commission and National Board of Antiquities since 1972. The researchers have documented buildings to be demolished, and also still existing historical buildings. The wallpapers are a clear unity within the collections. The collection consists of over 6000 wallpaper fragments and pieces, dating from the end of the 18th century and onwards.

There is a database and a version of it is online. The current database does not connect with other databases, but preparations have been done to convert it. Many of the wallpapers are not listed yet, and the pictures in the online version are very small.

The building fragment collection, including the wallpapers, is lacking curatorial and other caretaking and this is noted in the collection policy at the NBA. Currently it is only stored in several temporary places with no proper climate condition. Wallpapers are stored in removal boxes, stacks, rolls and folders. Currently it is not possible to visit the collection, except for some minor parts of it. Due to the store conditions and lack of curatorial resources the collection is not actively growing, but some donations are accepted.

Inquiries about wallpapers are constant, mainly about the date and rareness of the pattern. There are guidelines available online about the history and caretaking of the wallpapers in situ.


The two most eye-opening discoveries during my visit were the business side of the WMG, including the importance of sellable products, and the amount of volunteers and the friends of the Gallery.

Licensing and active promotion of the patterns had resulted in stylish products and results. The cooperation with designers is target-oriented, selected heritage brands and designers with same design ideas and philosophy as William Morris, are actively been sought.

In Finland volunteers are not yet an asset for museums, so it was very important to learn about the different positions volunteers are involved in, and to see the passion and joy in their work. The friends’ organisations are on a very different level than in Finland, and therefore it was great to learn about their functions. In Finland at the moment it is mostly NGO’s, congregations and charitable trusts that do offer volunteer positions. I learned a lot about the various reasons that inspire people to work as volunteer.

It was also fantastic to realize once again, how universal the museum family is, and how easy it is to broaden your view among friends. I learned a lot during my stay, and it was very rewarding to be useful for the hosting institution as well.