Royal Institute of British Architects


Charles Hind - Chief Curator

Charles Hind has worked for Royal Institute of British Architects for 25 years and is now the Chief Curator and Curator of Drawings. The vast collection numbers items into the millions, and has led to a successful partnership with the V&A where some of the material is stored and displayed at the museum in Kensington.

Charles draws upon his extensive experience to talk about the effect of architecture on everyday life, how Renaissance architectural principles continue to influence modern architects and the unusual items that can be found in the collection.

Photo courtesy of © Eric Winter perspective drawing of the entrance of the British Library, part of the Colin St John Wilson and Partners Archive. RIBA Collections


Royal Institute of British Architects:

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hello and welcome to the max communications 2021 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by charles hind chief curator for the royal institute of british architects hi charles would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about how you came into your role nowadays morning faith well i joined the riba back in 1996 so i'm heading for my 25 years originally as curator of drawings and i now combine that role with that of chief curator which gives me an oversight over the collections that we have dealing with drawings books photographs archives and manuscripts and such like i came to the role originally rather securely i trained originally i did history university i then became a librarian and then had a bit of a career change went to work for an auction house other biz with responsibility amongst other things uh for their architectural drawing sales which back in the 80s were an annual event and architecture has always been a passion although not to be an architect but architectural history was what interested me and then i became an architectural editor on a dictionary of art and then 1996 i took another slight term uh in the career path and joined the ripa as creative drawings so how do you spend an average day at the moment it must have changed over the years especially over the past year yes the the biggest difference has been that we don't have access to our collections which are housed in various locations in our headquarters building in portland place and the vna uh where we have a partnership with the the museum and then we have out stores and so on but guess not having access to your collections is a major problem if you're a museum curator but well there are of course a lot of meetings there's also i think what has changed is that although we always have dealt with queries we have to be rather more creative in how we answer them because it's not necessarily you can't go to look at the drawings if somebody wants a piece of information and just sort of take a snapshot or supply them with images or whatever so we have to try and find so research if you like uh that we're doing to help other people is perhaps going into more depth than we would otherwise done it's it's harder to point people in the right direction if we're the only people who've got the information stashed away somewhere so what type of material do you have it's quite a broad collection yes i think the the easiest way to sum it up is say that potentially the connections contain anything that interests architects so it isn't the design process that produces a building drawings models and so on in digital and analog form there are a lot of other things that come under the architecture umbrella we have major archives which are partly the archives of the institute as a professional body because the riba is a membership organization we have a manuscripts collection which is or everything else so that includes the material generated by a practice in terms of your letters and correspondence and job files and so on we have architects private papers letters and this is one of our biggest is the correspondence of something like six thousand letters between edwin lutherans and his wife and since they spend most of their married life apart that's an incredibly important resource for the life of the most significant british architect first off the 20th century then there's also papers architectural historians and and other people less directly connected with the design process than architects we have about 1.5 million photographs from the 1840s up to the present day which cover architecture worldwide and which generates a lot of contact content for our image database which is books rare books and journals from the 15th century to the present day which is housed in our main headquarters building in uh fallen place and then there's all sorts of weird and wonderful things ranging from portraits from the 1620s and which is sculpture painted and so on metals coins from antiquity there was a victorian architect thomas levinson donaldson who collected coins that depicted buildings that no longer exist which includes some unique ancient greek coins depicting lost buildings personal possessions the arts and crafts architect charles voicey whose archive we have now also includes things like his umbrella his letter opener and his key ring all designed by himself furniture the desk of charles holden who was the architect who responsible for most of the tube stations on the london underground built between the walls and so on so it's it's a very wide-ranging collection so a lot of that material will intersect with other interests who do you who accesses the collection who do you get inquiries from very wide range of people scholars historians students are the main users of our study room but we get inquiries from all over the world family historians grandpa was an architect and we'd like to know a bit more about his life or his his work his buildings people are interested in particular buildings they might be interested in their local church or the house they live in or something like that architects uh it's interesting how that's changed over my years because uh when i first arrived architects almost never used the collections books and journals yes but they hardly ever use the rest of the collections now they're quite a significant proportion because they're using them for sometimes for inspiration often they're working on buildings for which we have drawings and they need to know information that they can't find elsewhere purely practical things like where the trains go there are lots of stories connected with drains i can tell you from the 18th century illness conserve people involved in uh conservation so uh conservation officers local authority conservation officers planners and so on and education groups are important now we have a very good learning team dealing with school children but we get student groups adult education groups and so on coming in curators use the collection when they're working on loan exhibitions and we lend worldwide and then you get people with a just a one-off interest for example we had somebody who's writing a novel set in a victorian country house and she wanted to know the exact layout of the servant's quarters which often in a major country house were bigger than the main house so that she could plot the story using these this rabbit warren rooms that you would have found in a victorian country house so you can never really predict uh and it's often interesting if you're on the desk just go and talk to the reason and say why are you looking at this and you often get an unexpected answer sounds like every dude's different then oh absolutely how did your partnership with the victoria and albert come about then is that because prince albert was a fan of architecture or is there another reason for hosting your part of your collection there well the riba kept on moving buildings because the collections kept on growing and then they in 1934 they moved into their present hq and after that they said right enough's enough so when the drawings collection grew too big for that building it moved into a leased building and when that lease was expiring we looked around to see what the next solution should be and the vna was an obvious partner because the interests of the museum and its collections overlap very much uh with our own and uh we got substantial funding from the heritage lottery fund uh as it then was which is very keen on partnerships and the museum had discovered that they were not doing as much that they're very focused on working with the design professions and they felt that the that architecture was the one profession that they perhaps weren't doing as much for as they should so a partnership with us was logical for them and we have their study room and we find often that collections are split between us and the museum so if you want to look at the work of certain architects uh you would have to go to two complete separate institutions in separate buildings to look at perhaps designs for the same building and by walking from one room to an arch into the next one or even lay them all out together you can see everything in one place and for us it enabled us to work with the uh to have a permanent architecture gallery temporary exhibitions and so on and to raise our standards to what is expected of a 21st century museum so really positive partnership on both sides man oh very much so do you have any problems with the fact that some of your collection is in portland place and and some of it is it the victorian albert does that confuse some people well it confuses people as to who owns what not that it really matters tremendously as long as they can get access to it the uh in some senses the situation is even worse because it's not just two sites because we actually have a very large out store uh in full which is where most of our access acquisitions now goes uh that also has its own little study room and you just have to try and correct people's misapprehensions when they say oh i want to look at your stuff in or i would look at the vna riba collections or whatever you just say it's the riba stuff but don't worry yes we can show it to you occasionally there is confusion when they want to look at material belongs to the dna and there is adamant that we have it and we say no no we don't but anyway we work well and closely with our vla colleagues so we sort all that out and the key thing is that people are able to see what they want to see uh as a convenient place what are your hopes for the future of the archive are there any projects in the work or is there an audience that you particularly want to target i think a very important part of our remit is which goes back to our old royal charter which dates from 1838 which is to encourage uh interest in and knowledge of civil architecture and i think that that is something that is should be and is interpreted very widely i think that architecture is the one art form you can't get away from you you live in it you work in it you see it all around you and i think that if more people could understand why buildings look the way they do we will end up with architecture that people enjoy living in working in and so on and obviously what the one effect of the pandemic is that people uh probably increasingly we were working from home and homes were not designed as offices for the most part and so change is getting is change is bound to come and i think that an informed public knowing what has gone before and what is possible in the future will produce architecture that people will enjoy it's interesting you say that because i think that there is an increasing awareness of how as you say architecture shapes us we don't necessarily shape it i know the welcome trust is touched or not in a few exhibitions about how drains again and the shape of buildings uh communal spaces things like that really affect human nature but there's a sort of practical case of how the past can inform the present the greatest collection within the riba is that of the renaissance architect andrea palladio who is arguably the most influential architect in in history and the we have many uh we have uh 85 percent of his surviving drawings and that's a project uh a cataloging project that we're currently working on uh to produce a highly detailed uh catalogue but what's interesting about you say well what's the relevance of a renaissance architect to the 21st century and you will still find architects who don't use classical architecture in any way shape or form in their work but they will still look at patio for things like proportions and so on because rooms spaces which are proportional are spaces that people enjoy they don't realize quite often why they will enjoy one space more than another but if you analyze it it often comes down to something that is a human scale or even even when it's vast it can still be or something that people can relate to and that and paladio uh any architect really started that study of uh spaces uh in his villas and and churches and that's why there's so often visited and people find it very satisfying today but you can use his ideas in an you know in a modern flat uh a modern office block or whatever and people will still enjoy them and say architects who would never dream of using a classical molding or a column or an arch or anything like that conceal and do find something from a 500 year old architectural idea and those are things that they can find in our collections are you still adding to the question then we are two major recent uh additions is the archive of colin syndrome wilson and his uh wife mj long he was architect most famously of the british library and the archive of him and his wife who also practice independently have come in and we've got a cataloging project underway uh listing uh all that and unfortunately a victim of the pandemic there's another practice uh dixon jones which is just uh come in to us and we were sort of packing that up a few weeks ago what is your favorite item in the collection just what appeals to you personally you mentioned so many wonderful things that you have but is there something that you come back to time and time again well it's a bit quirky but we have a fragment of the coffin that's the christopher wren which was in inverted commas liberated uh from his vault in saint paul's cathedral in the 1850s when it was open for the last time for a descendant to be to be buried and averger picked it up and we only saw finally worked out the history relatively recently but the virger uh took it home and uh the house that in which he lodged also housed an architecture student and he gave it to the architecture student whose son bequeathed it to the riba in 1940 now this might sound so weird but this covers so many different areas ren is one of our greatest architects the fact that this fragment was given to us in 1940 is significant because uh some polls became a symbol of uh the continuity of british history uh during the war and surviving the blitz and so on it's a bit of social history because the uh it tells you about some funerals because just attached to this is uh there are a couple of gilded nails with some felt now this is the outer coffin the inner coffin was led and but the time that this was chiseled off and given to this architect in the 1850s was the time in which ren whose reputation had collapsed after his death in 17 1725 1723 was just began to rise and in the 1840s there came a recognition that he was a great architect and throughout the second half of the 19th century the ren revival gathered strength which is why you have so many high street banks for example which looked like 17th century buildings because that was represented the solidity and sturdiness the perceived solidity and sternness of your english architecture and so on so ren became a great symbol and uh you can see why an architect would have entered so this was a sort of a relic in a way and uh let's say it came to the rba in a significant time then so locked away it is safe and we'll have to say perhaps it was rather forgotten about in the 60s and 70s until it reappeared in the 90s and so it's quirky but that's my favorite object oh interesting choice as you say maybe liberated is quite a generous description of how it came into your collection but it's here now exactly and thank you so much for talking to me today charles about your collection and how much work you do to open it up to the public because obviously it's the institute's own collection they don't have to do that but it's wonderful that you do well as we say we're a private collection in a sense but we're the de facto national collections and we're working to make the connections much more accessible to online audiences particularly through these difficult times partly to complement our exhibition program in normal times but we have a website or you can follow the hashtag riba collections on social media to find out what is going on with our collections fantastic charles thank you so much for talking to me today thank you