Watch that man: V&A lands huge archive of David Bowie memorabilia

Public will have access to more than 80,000 items from the star’s handwritten lyrics to set designs in dedicated new centre

The physical legacy of David Bowie is to become publicly available following the donation of the cultural pioneer’s extensive archive to the V&A.

Lyrics for Blackout from the album Heroes, 1977.
Lyrics for Blackout from the album Heroes, 1977. Photograph: The David Bowie Archive/PA

The enormous cache of more than 80,000 items – including handwritten lyrics, instruments, costumes, set designs, letters and album artwork – spanning more than six decades will be held in a special centre being created in east London.

Opening in 2025, the David Bowie Centre for the Study of Performing Arts will provide a “new sourcebook for the Bowies of tomorrow”, said Tristram Hunt, the V&A’s director.

“David Bowie was one of the greatest musicians and performers of all time,” he added. “The V&A is thrilled to become custodians of his incredible archive, and to be able to open it up for the public.

“Bowie’s radical innovations across music, theatre, film, fashion and style – from Berlin to Tokyo to London – continue to influence design and visual culture and inspire creatives from Janelle Monáe to Lady Gaga to Tilda Swinton and Raf Simons.”

Among the items in the archive are intimate notebooks and unrealised projects from every era of Bowie’s life and career, most of which have not been seen in public.

David Bowie performing as the The Thin White Duke on the Station to Station Tour in 1976.
Performing as the The Thin White Duke on the Station to Station tour in 1976. Photograph: John Robert Rowlands and The David Bowie Archive/PA

There are handwritten lyrics for songs including Fame, Heroes and Ashes to Ashes. Stage costumes include Ziggy Stardust outfits, flamboyant creations for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour and the union jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the cover of the 1997 album Earthling.

The archive also includes a photo collage of film stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicolas Roeg, and tens of thousands of prints, negatives, large format transparencies, slides and contact sheets taken by leading photographers such as Terry O’Neill and Helmut Newton.

Instruments include Brian Eno’s synthesiser from Bowie’s Low and Heroes albums, and a stylophone that was a gift from Marc Bolan in the late 60s and used on Bowie’s Space Oddity recording.

From humble beginnings in south London, Bowie – whose real name was David Robert Jones – became one of the most influential musicians and performers of the 20th century. He is estimated to have sold more than 100m records worldwide.

Bowie dressed as Ziggy in a hotel room in New York in 1973.
Bowie dressed as Ziggy in a hotel room in New York in 1973. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 2013 the V&A mounted an exhibition of items from Bowie’s archive, which became one of the institution’s most popular shows of all time. It was seen by more than 2 million people around the world when it went on tour.

Bowie died from liver cancer in New York in 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album Blackstar, to the enormous shock of fans who had not known of his illness.

Kate Bailey, senior curator at the V&A, said: “We had unprecedented access to Bowie’s archive for the 2013 exhibition, but that only scratched the surface.”

The archive material showed “Bowie’s hand in everything – sketching out costume ideas and album covers, song notes, details of collaborations. It gives insight into his imagination and how he saw his ideas through.”

Bowie had never produced an autobiography, but the archive “mirrors his life and creativity”. That it had been secured for the nation was “mind blowing”, she said.

The centre will be created at V&A East Storehouse which is under construction in Stratford. It will house the archives of influential individuals and organisations, including Vivien Leigh, the Royal Court theatre and the Glastonbury festival.

The Bowie centre has been funded by the performer’s estate and a £10m donation from the Blavatnik Family Foundation and Warner Music Group.

Bowie wearing the bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour.
Bowie wearing the bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour. Photograph: Sukita and The David Bowie Archive/PA

A spokesperson for Bowie’s estate, said: “With David’s life’s work becoming part of the UK’s national collections, he takes his rightful place among many other cultural icons and artistic geniuses … We’re so pleased to be working closely with the V&A to continue to commemorate David’s enduring cultural influence.”

Tilda Swinton, the actor and friend of the star, said: “Bowie is a spectacular example of an artist who not only made unique and phenomenal work, but who has an influence and inspiration far beyond that work itself.

“In acquiring his archive for posterity, the V&A will now be able to offer access to David Bowie’s history, not only to practising artists from all fields, but to every last one of us, and for the foreseeable future.”


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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