British Theatre Museum Association Archive

Scope and Content

The archive contains the administrative papers of the British Theatre Museum Association, other organisations related to the establishment of a national performing arts museum, and its successor organisation, the Theatre Museum Association. The records document the establishment and running of the Theatre Museum and include administrative and financial records, membership, press and publicity papers, production files for exhibitions and collection acquisition papers. The archive contains extensive correspondence files, including papers related to the project instigator Laurence Irving.

Administrative / Biographical History

The British Theatre Museum Association (BTMA) created the first national museum of theatre in the UK. The organisation formed in 1957 and the first museum was opened at Leighton House in London in 1963. In 1974 the collections were merged with a number of others to create a comprehensive performing arts collection at the V&A.

In 1955 Laurence Irving wrote in the correspondence columns in The Times that "owing to the absence of a central authority whose concern it is to acquire the materials of our theatre history for the nation, many treasures have left, and are still leaving, this country". His proposals for the formation of an organisation to preserve theatrical cultural heritage were discussed at the Society for Theatre Research and subsequently at the Arts Council. In 1957 the British Theatre Museum Association was formed as a charitable trust to acquire important theatrical materials and work towards the creation of a National Theatre Museum. Founding collections included the archive of Irving's grandfather, celebrated actor Sir Henry Irving, and collections of Ivor Novello.

The BTMA was supported by membership and donations. Irving became the first Chairman and the trust attracted important and influential supporters. Early exhibitions were hosted at the Saville Theatre. The BTMA did not achieve regular public funding but a grant from the Coulthurst Trust in 1960 allowed the trust to appoint the first Curator, Freda Gaye, and secure the lease of Leighton House. Sir Hugh Casson redesigned the interior and the first British Theatre Museum was opened by Vanessa Redgrave on 18th June 1963.

The collection grew through public donations and the acquisition of a number of significant collections, including the Murray Carrington - Carmen Pedro Collection and prompt scripts of the English Stage Company. The BTMA were successful in preventing the sale abroad of important Sheridan manuscripts, including the script for School for Scandal. Larger premises were sought and discussions began to move to recently vacated spaces in Somerset House.

Seperately, in 1967 theatre critic and author Richard Buckle began plans for a Museum of Performing Arts. Buckle prepared the collections of the Diaghilev and De Basil Ballet companies for sale at Sotheby's and began a campaign to acquire examples for a national collection. After learning of the pending move of Covent Garden Market, which provided opportunity for expansion of the Royal Opera House and Royal Ballet, discussions were begun of the potential to combine collections related to different theatrical disciplines.

In 1974 the collections of the British Theatre Museum and those compiled by the Friends of the Museum of Performing Arts were merged with the Enthoven collections at the V&A Museum to create a Theatre Museum under the administration of the V&A. The British Theatre Museum Association, was dissolved in 1977 having achieved its primary purpose of a establishing a national theatre museum. The exhibition space at Leighton House closed in 1977 and a new Theatre Museum was opened at Covent Garden in 1987.

A successor organisation was formed to replace the British Theatre Museum Association beginning in 1974 and with many of the same members. The organisation became the Theatre Museum Association to 'foster, assist and promote in any charitable manner the fulfillment of the purposes of the Theatre Museum.' It supported the establishment of the Theatre Museum until it was dissolved in 1992.

The Theatre Museum closed in 2007 and the collections and archives became the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance.


The archive is arranged as follows:

  • THM/466/1 Governance
  • THM/466/2 Finance
  • THM/466/3 Correspondence
  • THM/466/4 Collections
  • THM/466/5 Exhibitions
  • THM/466/6 Premises
  • THM/466/7 Publicity and Marketing
  • THM/466/8 Theatre Museum Association
  • THM/466/9 British Theatre Institute
  • THM/466/10 Friends of the Museum of Performing Arts

The archive maintains the original organisation arrangement within series where possible.

Access Information

This archive collection is available for consultation in the V&A Blythe House Archive and Library Study Room by appointment only. Full details of access arrangements may be found here:

Access to some of the material may be restricted. These are noted in the catalogue where relevant.

Acquisition Information

Given by the British Theatre Museum Association

Conditions Governing Use

Information on copying and commercial reproduction may be found here:

Appraisal Information

This collection was appraised in line with collection management policy.


No further accruals are expected.

Related Material

See also the V&A Archive and the core collections of the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance. Material collected by the British Theatre Museum Association may be found in several collections, including the biographical, productions, company and photographs files.

Please ask for details.