V&A’s Frankenstein prop ignites a monstrous argument

Children stare at the giant wooden statue - Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for V&A
Children stare at the giant wooden statue - Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for V&A

Frankenstein has caused a monstrous museum row, as US curators insist that a giant dummy held at the V&A should be “back where it belongs”.

The V&A boasts in its collection a seven-foot-tall wooden dummy based on Boris Karloff, the horror star who played Frankenstein’s monster in a string of 1930s films, but The Telegraph can reveal that the prop’s ownership is being contested by American curators.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) has insisted that it owns the hulking dummy – as well as the costume which clothes it – and demanded that the Frankenstein relics be repatriated to the US.

The Californian museum told The Telegraph that it “did not consent to the sale of these objects”, adding that it was “eager to see the Karloff costume back where it belongs”.

The V&A’s position is that the costumed dummy was legally acquired, and cannot be returned under UK law, but the transatlantic museum row has raised questions about the history of the monstrous mannequin.

Victoria and Albert Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum

The dummy is clad in the original rags worn by Karloff in Bride Of Frankenstein, released in 1935. That year Universal Studios, the film’s production company, donated both the dummy and the tattered costume to the NHM.

According to V&A provenance research, the costumed dummy was then loaned in 1949 to the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – which runs its own film memorabilia museum – but was reported as being destroyed in 1967.

The pieces were thought to be lost, but the dummy and costume were bought at auction in 1988 by the London-based Museum of Moving Image, a now-defunct attraction run by the British Film Institute until its closure in 1999.

In 2014, the pieces were transferred to the V&A, where they subsequently came to the attention of NHM staff who were shocked to find the Frankenstein objects still intact and in another museum’s possession.

The NHM now wants the pieces to be returned, saying it “was not aware of and did not consent to the sale of these objects”, and questions have been raised as to what happened to the costumed dummy after its time at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and supposed destruction. The Academy has been contacted for comment.

It is understood that the Academy has no record of the Frankenstein pieces being sold.

The V&A has said that the objects were bought in 1988 with good title – with no legal claims to ownership hanging over them – and were then brought into their collection. The towering dummy is now set to be displayed at the V&A Museum of Childhood following a £13 million revamp.

Because the V&A is a national museum, UK law now prevents it from giving objects away, meaning that the contested Frankenstein pieces are set to remain in Britain despite demands from the US.

Restrictions introduced through the National Heritage Act 1983 prevent museums selling off treasures held for the public, and only allow trustees to “deaccession” (remove) objects from collections if they are duplicates or irreversibly damaged.

The law has led to a stalemate in a number of repatriation claims, including demands that the British Museum return objects like the Elgin Marbles and Benin Bronzes. It would take government intervention to alter the current restrictions on “deaccession”, something Tristram Hunt, the V&A’s director, has called for.

Boris Karloff in costume as Frankenstein's Monster - Bettmann Archive
Boris Karloff in costume as Frankenstein's Monster - Bettmann Archive

The NHM in California has said it is seeking an “open dialogue with the V&A to see if a cultural exchange that benefits both our visitors can be achieved”.

A spokesman for the V&A said: “The V&A has been in contact with representatives from the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles about the object’s history and provenance, and proposed a number of partnership opportunities. We welcome the opportunity for further discussion.”

The dummy is modelled on the look of Karloff in Frankenstein (1931), which became the enduring image of the monster, with a metal-plated skull and bolts jutting from its neck. The costume clothing for the dummy consists of a tattered jacket, trousers and oversized boots.

The costume was used in the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, a sequel. Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in London, and became well known as a horror star under his stage name.